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US Immigrants, First Generation Americans on Active Military Duty in Iraq - 2003-05-13

Immigrants and first generation Americans have fought for the United States throughout its history. Now, many are serving in Iraq, after joining the volunteer military.

Virginia Cabrera struggled for years to give her two sons, Victor Elias, and Jose Luis, a better life.

Twenty years ago, she moved to the United States, leaving her children with their grandmother in the Dominican Republic. She worked as a cashier, sending money home until she was able to bring her sons to New York 12 years ago.

Then, a Marine recruitment officer visited her sons' secondary school. Speaking through a translator, Ms. Cabrera said both her sons decided to join the Marines to help out financially and save for college tuition.

Both are in Iraq, and Jose Luis' wife, an Army medic, is in Kuwait.

"My two sons want to work, to go to school and to do certain things in life, and financially I could not provide for them to do that," she explained. "So, through the Marines, they know that they will be able to accomplish this goal. Financial aid [for college] is not something that you are always guaranteed, but now that they are Marines, and they are veterans of war, probably they will be able to accomplish these goals," she said.

But not all immigrants or first generation Americans join the U.S. military for new opportunities.

Afrim Brahimi is the son of Shiqeri Brahimi, who made a new life in New York 30 years ago.

The Brahimis are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who are U.S. citizens. Mr. Brahimi runs his own construction company and the family recently moved out of the city to a house in the suburbs.

Mr. Brahimi and his wife raised three middle-class "American kids", but the family was always connected to Kosovo. Mr. Brahimi said that bond, along with their U.S. patriotism, became more intense after NATO forces liberated predominantly-Muslim Kosovo from Serbian repression in 1999.

"The Albanians would often get together in the house and talk about how these people helped us and everything, and we should go and be a Marine, be a soldier, be something," Mr. Brahimi said.

Mr. Brahimi admits he was skeptical when Afrim announced he was leaving college to serve.

"My reaction was, you want me to be honest? My reaction was very tough because I had to ask him a question, what is pushing him to go into the Marines? Because it was so quick. He was dong well in school. The first thing that came to my mind, I said 'are you having problems in school?'" he said.

But after talking to his son, Mr. Brahimi understood that Afrim felt compelled to join the Marines because of Kosovo. "When he told me about Kosovo, believe me, I had nothing to say anymore. I just said go ahead, and good luck to you and I hope you are going to be safe. And I hope you are going to be okay and come home, that is all I can say. We did not know at this time, of course, that there was going to be this [situation] in Iraq. But when you go to the military, you have to expect these things, right?" Mr. Brahimi said.

The Defense Department said it does not track the number of first-generation Americans or naturalized citizens in the U.S.-armed forces. But about 37,000 non-citizens are on active duty in the U.S. military.

Last July, President Bush signed an executive order making immigrant soldiers eligible for expedited U.S. citizenship.

Several lawmakers are also trying to ease the citizenship process for immigrant soldiers and their families, who can apply to change their status after three years of service.

Ms. Cabrera and her sons are permanent residents who hold what is called a "green card". She says she hopes that now that her sons are war veterans, they can finally become U.S. citizens.

"I know that it makes a big difference once you become a citizen in the opportunities you get in this country. And I have been in this country for 22 years and I have given my best, which are my two children, and I would really like, on behalf of all the parents, the families as well, to be able to become citizens," Ms. Cabrera said.

At least 10 of the fallen U.S. soldiers in Iraq were not citizens, including Sergeant Riayan Tejada, a U.S. Marine originally from the Dominican Republic, whose family lives in New York City.

New York's Dominican community came out in full force for Mr. Tejada's funeral in a neighborhood where it is common to see American and Dominican flags draped together from apartment windows.

Ana Diaz is a social worker who helps Dominican families adjust to life in the United States. She also acted as Ms. Cabrera's translator. Ms. Diaz says the death of Riayan Tejeda brought the realities of war home to New York's Dominican community.

"We never forgot what it is to be an immigrant and this is a reminder that there are a lot of sacrifices [that] immigrants [make] and [the high] price that they pay. And it is definitely a reminder to other people that there are many immigrants who, on a daily basis, put their lives at risk for this nation," Ms. Diaz said.

For Virginia Cabrera, U.S. citizenship will not undermine her sons' connection to their heritage. While they are both married to American women, she says they maintain deep ties to their Dominican roots.

Ms. Cabrera says she plans to wave the flags of their two nations when she greets her sons returning home. "I believe my sons will never forget where they come from and who they are, and they love their Dominican heritage, and they are proud of being Dominican. At the same time, they also learned how to love this nation as well, and they did that so well that they are even serving this nation in a war," she said.

All three Marines say they are safe in Iraq. Now that the fighting has ended, they have had brief telephone conversations with the loved ones who are waiting for them.

Afrim Brahimi is scheduled to come home soon. Victor Elias and Jose Luis Cabrera are expected to return by August.