Irish and Mexicans Need Not Apply

08/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Would we desert you now,

Flag of the Free;

When we a solemn vow,

Flag of the Free;

You from all harm to save,

Made when we crossed the wave,

And you a welcome gave,

Flag of the Free?"

The Irish-American's Song, 1864

In the dark days of the American Civil War, when the very existence of the Union was in question, help came from those new immigrants -- mainly Irish and German -- who answered the call to arms when many native-born citizens found better things to do or paid others to fight for them. The Irish, who began to pour into the United States in the 1840s, were specifically targeted as somewhat less-than-human -- signs saying "No Dogs or Irish Allowed," were common in America's largest cities. My own great-great-grandfather was driven out of Tennessee in 1860 due to his "Irishness" and his abhorrence of slavery. He did what many of his fellow Paddys (and yes, his name was Patrick) did. He joined the Union Army and fought for the country that had rejected him.

I had the honor, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to serve with one of the finest soldiers I ever knew. Raul was a first-rate soldier, and our company clerk. He had a family -- a wife and two small children -- that he supported on his meager salary as a Specialist (for those unfamiliar with the rank, it is between Private First Class and Sergeant; the same rank as a Corporal in the combat arms). When his buddies were out drinking at night, he was attending night school, trying to get an associates degree.

And Raul, as he admitted to me in a blown up building in Panama, was an illegal alien. As a young teenager, he slipped across the border from Mexico, literally swimming the Rio Grande to cross into Texas. After obtaining documentation -- and I never asked if it was real or fake -- he got himself into high school in Texas. Keep in mind, this is a 14- or 15-year-old kid without family enrolling himself in high school in a foreign country. He finished high school, and immediately enlisted in the Army. I met him a couple of years into his first tour.

I went to war with Raul when the United States invaded Panama. In that country, he, I, and two other fellows cleared a building full of Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) troops, without firing a shot. As a native Spanish speaker, Raul talked the PDF troops into surrendering. It was amazing and effective. Raul and I would walk the streets of Panama City doing police duty, he translating for his "gringo" lieutenant. After we came back home, I talked him into reenlisting for another tour, this time as a military policeman. He left the unit, and we all went to Desert Storm a month later. I lost track of him after that.

I served my country for 26 years. I was born in Arkansas and I am not an immigrant.

But I get angry when I see the anti-immigrant propaganda being spewed by self-styled "Americans" on television and talk radio. I find it infuriating when I see and hear "illegal aliens" being used as de facto serfs by "good Americans" -- most of whom have never had to do real physical labor in their entire lives. But the real insult is when politicians and pundits, many of whom have never served a day in uniform, and whose children are far too precious to send to the wars they start, cannot recognize the fact that immigrants -- documented and undocumented--are more than willing to serve this nation if given the opportunity.

Currently, there is an expedited process for naturalization of veterans and serving military personnel, under INA Section 328 and 329 (328 is the peacetime service exemption, 329 is the wartime service exemption). In general, if an immigrant serves honorably in wartime, even for a single day, they are allowed to apply for citizenship. While this does greatly speed the process, it is not enough. Service itself should bestow citizenship, not "moral character," "English proficiency" and "Knowledge of Civics" tests. Three years of honorable service in peacetime and any service in wartime should result in automatic citizenship for both the service member and their immediate families. Combat wounded and medically discharged personnel should have the same automatic citizenship.

The United States should actively recruit foreign nationals who wish to serve. My own great uncle, a U.S. citizen eager to fight against Hitler, slipped across the Canadian border in 1940 at the ripe age of 17 and enlisted in the Canadian Army before the United States entered the war. France, through its Foreign Legion, has long allowed foreigners to gain citizenship with service. There is no logical reason why the United States cannot do the same. Not just Latino immigrants should be recruited. Enlist those from the Middle East, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, who have already served alongside U.S. troops. Their knowledge of the culture, sensitivity and regional expertise to the U.S. military would be invaluable. Linguists who are native speakers, civil affairs officers who understand exact tribal and local needs and norms would be priceless. No "Foreign Legion" should be considered, however. These men and women who are willing to serve must be integrated into a multi-cultural, multi-gendered, democratic and merit-based military.

To encourage service and duty; the "dirty Irish" of the Civil War were good enough to die for the Union while their "betters" bought substitutes to fight in their place. After the Golgotha of Fredericksburg in 1862, the signs "No dogs or Irish Allowed" began to disappear from taverns and inns. Perhaps, by their sacrifice, the new immigrants, regardless of their home country, will be rewarded with the same. They deserve citizenship -- now, immediately, without hesitation or government red tape -- more than the children of privilege whose fathers start wars but do not send their dear, darling children to fight, who would rather see their daughter's wedding photos in the society section of the paper than in the list of the dead in the A Section. Whose fathers instead berate and inflame their fellow citizens to pass laws further restricting immigration, who use the news media to spread fear and hatred of the very people who are defending them on faraway battlefields where they have been sent to fight by the very demagogues who belittle them and their families.

Perhaps it is time that we truly appreciate the service of immigrants who want nothing more than to give their families a decent future and are willing to put their lives in jeopardy to achieve that dream.

"Are we now cowards grown,

Flag of the Free?

Would we now disown,

Flag of the Free?

You to whose folds we fled;

You in whose cause we bled,

Bearing you at our head,

Flag of the Free?"