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Noncitizen soldiers: the quandaries of foreign-born troops

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Stuck in the Iraqi desert, fighting a war for a country not yet his, US Army Sgt. Leopoldo Escartin and other troops at Camp Dogwood hung a bit of home outside their desert-tan tent: the tricolor Mexican flag.

Making up about 7 percent of America's active fighting force, immigrants with green cards - Mexicans the largest group among them - are risking their lives not just for advancement within the Army, but for a leg up on the road to US citizenship. As America celebrated its 229th year of independence this weekend, immigrants offered their own breed of patriotic sacrifice, and their numbers are rising even as the Army has struggled to meet recruiting goals.

Their service is steeped in pride, but also in the paradoxes of allegiance inherent in serving under a foreign flag. "If I die over there, I'm not even dying for my own country," says Sergeant Escartin, who is based at Fort Bliss, Texas.

To the public, the role of immigrant soldiers is equally complicated: Even as the nation honors their exemplary service, there is ambivalence over how big a role noncitizens should play. Even the Declaration of Independence, in its litany of complaints about England, railed against the use of "foreign mercenaries." Today, the notion that America may be, in effect, hiring foreigners to do its dirty work, is an ethical quandary exaggerated by the quiet loosening of requirements - and increasing of benefits - for immigrants who will shoulder rifles for Uncle Sam.

"There are many stories ... about young men and women who signed up knowing that they would eventually gain their citizenship, who were subsequently killed," says Charles Peña, a defense-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. "The question is: Was their ultimate sacrifice worthwhile?"

Recognizing the growing importance of immigrants in an Army that has struggled to meet its recruiting goals, the government is hastening citizenship for those who serve in the Armed Forces long term. There were 28,000 immigrant soldiers five years ago; that number has climbed to 39,000 today, not counting the thousands of foreign contractors hired since 9/11. So far, 59 immigrant casualties have been granted posthumous citizenship - and a new rule allows their families to use the deceased as a sponsor for their own residency papers. Even illegal immigrants who enter the forces under false pretenses have a chance at legal residency if they see combat.

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