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Posted: 9/29/2004 9:02:46 AM EDT
Issue Date: October 04, 2004

Soldier fights for U.S. — and his citizenship
Specialist has lived paperwork nightmare twice

By Matthew Cox
Times staff writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Spc. Juan Moreno is serving his second combat tour here, but he still doesn’t have the right to say he’s proud to be an American.

Moreno drives a Bradley fighting vehicle for the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, a unit that routinely operates in Sadr City. The heavily populated slum area of Baghdad is home Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi army and one of the most dangerous places in the country.

But that’s not the only thing the 24-year-old Mexican immigrant has to worry about these days. He’s in the middle of his second application for citizenship to the Unites States.

Moreno’s worst fear is that his wife, Aidee, who is also from Mexico, will be forced out of the United States, along with his infant son.

“I’m scared that when I do get back home, she will have been deported,” he said, adding that if that happens, his son, Juan Jr., would go with his mother.

Moreno’s family left his childhood home of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Mexico, and came to America in 1988. Since then, home has been Prescott, Ark.

In June 1999, Moreno submitted his application and $500 processing fee to become a U.S. citizen. He joined the Army and went to basic and advanced individual training at Fort Benning, Ga., in November 2000.

In January, his mother sent him a letter telling him he needed send his fingerprints to Texas, where his citizenship application was being processed.

Getting fingerprinted at a military police station at Benning and mailing them off was easy enough. It wasn’t until after Moreno completed his training in April 2001 that he received a letter from immigration officials telling him he would have to try some other time.

“They said they never received the prints, and that the application had been denied,” Moreno said, who added that he also lost the $500 application fee.

Disappointed, Moreno decided to focus on his training at Fort Riley, Kan. But his priorities changed after he married Aidee on Jan. 28, 2002. He submitted a new application for citizenship in December 2002 after returning from a six-month rotation to Kuwait. At the same time, he and his wife submitted an application for her to get her green card.

Three months later, he was on his way to Kuwait again, this time to prepare for the ground-war phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He came home in July 2003.

Life was looking up. He got a letter from immigration officials telling him his application was being worked, and he would just have to wait for an appointment date.

And wait he did.

Finally, in May, Moreno received the letter telling him he had an appointment set for September, three months after his unit was slated to deploy to Iraq for a second combat tour.

He applied and received an earlier date — July 16. “I went to the INS office in Kansas City; I told them there was no way I could make it,” Moreno said. “They tried to do it that day, but my background check from the FBI had not come back … I was pretty much out of luck.”

Then, he received a letter on Aug. 25 regarding his wife’s green card application. He had 12 weeks to send their marriage certificate. The only problem was the letter was postmarked April 24, which made it already four weeks past the 12-week deadline. It had been sent to his old address when he lived in the barracks.

Citing privacy laws, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service would not comment on Moreno’s case. CIS spokesman Chris Bentley said the agency is aware that many deployed soldiers, airmen and Marines who are foreign-born are anxious to become citizens and the government is days from kicking off a new program that will help expedite the process.

Starting Oct. 1, CIS will have new authority to conduct naturalization ceremonies, the final stage of the citizenship process, at U.S. embassies overseas.

“Right now, our deployed troops have to come home to do this. But we will start taking the naturalization ceremonies to the troops in the field next week,” Bentley said Sept. 24. “That will take soldiers like Spc. Moreno out of the waiting queue and grant them citizenship on the spot.”

Currently, about 33,000 noncitizens are serving in the U.S. military, some 8,000 of them in the Army. Bentley did not know for sure, but he said Moreno may have reached the final stages of the naturalization process. He declined to say what countries the CIS agents will be dispatched to, but there is a U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Despite his frustration, Moreno said he still wants to become a U.S. citizen.

“I love the United States,” he said. “You have rights — you can do a lot of things you can’t do in other countries.”

Still, he said he can’t help but feel a little bitter that too much emphasis is placed on the citizenship test, which consists mostly of questions on American history.

“I’ve been to combat twice; I think that should be enough,” he said. “What is more important — to serve your country and risk your life or to prove you know the history?”

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