During the nearly five years that I was secretary of defense, 2,621 immigrants serving in the United States military became naturalized citizens while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 100 immigrant troops have made the supreme sacrifice in combat during those wars. In that same period, from 2006 to 2011, a total of 45,700 immigrants who wore the uniform of the American military all across the world became American citizens.
I was honored to serve alongside all of them, and humbled by their sense of duty, by their willingness to risk life and limb for a country they yearned to call their own.
I attended a number of naturalization ceremonies for these soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors. At one ceremony, in October 2008 at Fort Bragg, N.C., 41 immigrant service members, men and women from 26 countries, became citizens. I told them it was one of the true glories of our country that when it comes to being an American, you don’t have to be a descendant of the founders or the colonists who came on the Mayflower. What counts is whether you believe in America’s ideals, follow its laws and pitch in for the common good.
Quoting Abraham Lincoln, I said that immigrants can read the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and feel that “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration.”
The United States faces extraordinary security challenges that are placing growing pressure on our armed forces. Those forces are stronger when they embody the nation’s diversity, drawing from a large pool of willing young people able to adapt to changing threats. That is why we need legislation that will provide a pathway to citizenship for those immigrants who, among other attributes, are serving or have served in the military, whether they are in America legally or were brought here illegally as children. That kind of policy will help the military recruit new service members and improve readiness.
By RObert M. Gates for THE NEW YORK TIMES
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