The U.S. soldier was ready to deploy across the world at a moment’s notice, but when the orders came down weeks ago to mobilize on the southern border, it sparked a flash of concern.
He knew the mission was in support of border agents combing harsh borderland terrain to arrest anyone unlawfully in the country.
People like him.
“I’m an illegal immigrant,” the Chinese-born soldier told The Washington Post by phone.
His duties do not often intersect with Customs and Border Protection agents, he said, but he has avoided them out of fear they will learn that one of 5,400 troops in their orbit is in violation of immigration law.
That has placed him in the unusual situation of serving a nation that has not recognized him as a citizen, despite promises from the Pentagon to quickly naturalize skilled immigrants in exchange for service, as they had done for thousands of troops since 2009.
The Post is withholding the soldier’s name and certain details, including his duty location, because he fears discipline for speaking to the media.
The soldier, now in his late 20s, began his path to the United States nearly a decade ago, after high school.
His home in southeastern China is beautiful, he said, the region dotted with lakes and towering limestone karst formations. But it is also stifling. He felt trapped by family expectations, and a passion for engineering could take him only so far there.
There were better opportunities in America, he believed.
He joined his sister in California on a student visa and enrolled in college. The military seemed like a place to further his career, he said, and the Pentagon’s immigrant recruit program guaranteed something more than job security: “A sense of pride,” he said.
His enlistment would also harness something that makes him especially valuable to the military — his voice. He speaks Mandarin Chinese, which is among several languages the Pentagon has deemed strategically vital but in short supply among U.S.-born troops.
By Alex Horton for THE WASHINGTON POST
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