Army veteran, an illegal immigrant, wants citizenship
Five days before illegal immigrant Ekaterine Bautista, who served six years in the U.S. military, planned to become a U.S. citizen under a decades-old law, her swearing-in ceremony was canceled after it was learned she served in the military under a false identity.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Five days before Ekaterine Bautista planned to become a U.S. citizen, she got a call from the federal government: Her swearing-in ceremony had been canceled pending further investigation.
Bautista was devastated. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, she had served six years in the U.S. military — including a 13-month tour in Iraq — and was eligible to apply for naturalization under a decades-old law.
But approval of her case depended on the discretion of citizenship officials. Bautista had served in the military under a false identity, that of her U.S. citizen aunt, Rosalia Guerra-Morelos.
Bautista had passed the civics exam, completed all the paperwork and received a letter telling her to show up at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 31. Then the call came.
"Yeah, I made a mistake," Bautista, 35, said. "But if you look back at my records, I never did anything wrong in the military. On the contrary."
Sitting in her father's home in East Los Angeles, Bautista looks through a thick binder of commendations and certificates, including the Combat Action Badge. She said she was promoted to sergeant within three years. She pulls out photos: one showing her hugging her friends in her unit in Germany, another showing her in uniform at the base she guarded in Iraq.
Bautista decided to enlist just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"It was a calling," said Bautista, who was a teenager when her mother brought her to the United States. "I felt the need to join because it was the right thing to do, and also because of my daughter. I had to protect my daughter."
She called an Army recruiting office, but they told her that a Mexican passport wasn't enough and that she had to be a U.S. citizen or a green-card holder to enlist. So she asked her family for permission to use the identity of her aunt, a U.S. citizen who lived in Mexico. With their blessing, Bautista walked into a recruiting office and identified herself as Rosalia Guerra-Morelos.
As part of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, noncitizens who serve in the military one year during peacetime or one day during wartime are eligible to apply for fast-tracked citizenship.
Between September 2001 and March 2010, more than 58,000 men and women in the armed forces were naturalized, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency doesn't track how many originally were illegal immigrants.
There have been similar cases to Bautista's, including that of Mexican illegal immigrant Liliana Plata, who bought a stolen Social Security card in Los Angeles so she could join the military and later became a decorated airman serving in Iraq as Cristina Alaniz. She was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 2003 after the real Alaniz discovered her identity had been stolen.
Many immigrants have been raised in the United States and are drawn to the armed forces for the same reasons as native-born Americans: a steady job, the military lifestyle and patriotism, said Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration attorney who specializes in military cases.
"Many are very patriotic, even though it's not officially their country," she said.
Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said that enlisting under a false identity is a crime and is taken seriously by the government: "It really is fraud."
But in some cases, he said, if the person served honorably, the government should exercise discretion and grant citizenship.
When she enlisted, Bautista said, she didn't know that immigrants who served in the military could become citizens.
After basic training, Bautista was stationed in Germany as a food-service specialist. In 2004, she deployed to Iraq and guarded the base in Baqouba.
On June 8, 2004, a car driven by a suicide bomber approached the gate and immediately exploded.
Bautista was knocked off her feet. Three people landed on top of her.
After a few seconds, Bautista said, she stood up and saw blood and body parts everywhere. She ran to get medical supplies and helped bandage fellow soldiers and Iraqi citizens who worked on the base. Bautista's commanding officer and two Iraqi civilians were killed. More than a dozen soldiers and Iraqi citizens were wounded. "It was chaos," she said, tears falling down her face.
Back in Germany, she settled into the routine of military life. She fell in love, but even he didn't know her true identity. She didn't tell fellow soldiers she had a daughter.
In 2008, Bautista was called into an office by her superiors. They told her they knew who she really was. She asked to talk to an attorney.
Several fellow soldiers and superiors wrote letters on her behalf.
In the end, Bautista was honorably discharged and arrived in Los Angeles in July 2009. Having to leave the military, she said, still hurts. Even now, she wishes she could return to Iraq.
Bautista's attorney, Noemi Ramirez, said she admires her client's dedication to America and said she deserves citizenship.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Mariana Gitomer said she couldn't comment on the case but said it's not unusual for the agency to need further clarification.
"It doesn't mean that they are not going to be naturalized," she said. "It just means we have to look into the case a bit more."
Until her case is resolved, Bautista can't legally drive, work or receive veterans' benefits. Even though she wishes she could have done so with her own name, Bautista said she doesn't regret joining the military.
"Now that I look at my daughter," she said, "it was worth it."
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