WASHINGTON – When Antonio Taguba turned 65 years old, he got a notice in the mail that he needed to sign up for Medicare – but when he tried to sign up, he was told Social Security had a problem with his application. He needed to contact that office immediately.
“I called this guy and he says to me, ‘We’re calling you, sir, because we don’t have you in our database as a United States citizen,’” said Taguba.
Taguba, now 66, was livid. He had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when he was very young, but he had, in fact, become a citizen at age 11.
More than that, however, he was on active duty in the United States military for 34 years, retiring at the rank of major general in the U.S. Army.
“I got top secret clearances and stuff like that,” he said. “And now I have to prove my citizenship?”
As of 2016, the National Immigration Forum, a leading immigrants’ rights group, estimates that there are 511,000 veterans living in the United States who are immigrants, making up about 3 percent of the total veteran population. Of those 511,000, 82 percent (417,000) are now naturalized U.S. citizens.
Four such veterans spoke at the National Press Club Monday as part of a panel moderated by Leo Shane, a reporter for the Military Times. They were part of Veterans for New Americans, a program of the National Immigration Forum. It’s designed to bring together “influential veterans representing each of the military branches who support a bipartisan solution on immigration.”
In a statement, the group outlined several principles that they believe will be important to guide future immigration policy.
Among them: a more efficient pathway to citizenship as part of military service; support and care for immigrant veterans suffering from service-related conditions (especially conditions that could lead to actions that could get them deported); support for families of immigrant service members and veterans, and support for programs that can help immigrant veterans more easily integrate into the workforce.
“We’re all immigrants, and we’re all committed to the ideals of the founders of our country,” said Retired Lt. Col. L. Carter Crewe III, an immigrant to America from Great Britain. “Today, more than ever, we need to honor their tremendous contributions (to the military) by updating our national immigration laws to fully address the unique immigration challenges faced by new American veterans and their families.”
In America, immigrants who are not U.S. citizens must meet criteria to join the armed forces that includes being able to live and work permanently and legally in the United States, having a high school diploma and being able to speak English.
Immigrant service members who are noncitizens may not, however, be military officers nor obtain security clearances. As of 2012, about 24,000 immigrants were on active duty, according to National Immigration Forum data, with around 5,000 immigrants joining each year.
“As with all sectors of society, immigrants have a long and proud history of service in our country’s armed forces,” Taguba said. “Supporting bipartisan immigration reform will sustain the positive impact (of) both our national security and economic power.”
After discussing how policy should better recognized the contributions of immigrants in the United States military, Monday’s conversation shifted to the presidential election and the immigration proposals that were central to the campaign of now-President-elect Donald Trump.
During the campaign, Trump proposed policies that were highly critical of immigrants here illegally, which some media critics and political partisans considered xenophobic. Moreover, the proposed crackdown on undocumented immigrants by a new Trump administration has many worried about the future of diversity both in the military and in the country as a whole, even for those who are here legally.
“The way we put down xenophobia is to speak up when we see it,” said Retired Captain Graciela Tiscareño Sato.
Crewe said added: “In the military, we’re taught mission first and unit first, and we think greater than ourselves—and that’s the key.”
Above all, Retired Maj. Gen. Taguba said the president-elect “is no longer a businessman.”
“He has another hat,” Taguba said. “He sends people to combat… Joining the military has nothing to do with politics… Bullets don’t discriminate.”