Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Becoming an American Citizen, the Hardest Way

Maria Alcántara, center, and her daughter Fredelinda Peña, in striped sweater,
took the citizenship oath on Monday for Ms. Alcántara’s son,
Cpl. Juan Alcántara,
who died in Iraq.
Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Published: September 18, 2007

On an August day when some Iraqi’s homemade bomb tore through him, Cpl. Juan Mariel Alcántara became an American. He never got to appreciate the honor.

A little-discussed detail of this war is that some of those fighting in it as soldiers of the United States are not American citizens. Over all, about 21,000 noncitizens are serving in this country’s armed forces, the Defense Department says.

Until death claimed him on Aug. 6, one of them was Corporal Alcántara of the United States Army.

He did not live long enough to acquire a richly textured biography. He was born in the Dominican Republic, reared in Washington Heights. He was 22 when the bomb — an improvised explosive device, in military-speak — ended his life and the lives of three fellow soldiers from the Second Infantry Division while they searched a house in Baquba, north of Baghdad.

At 22, Corporal Alcántara was old enough to have talked about going to college and maybe becoming a New York police officer, old enough to have a fiancée, old enough to have fathered a baby girl he never saw, Jaylani, 6 weeks old when he was killed. He was old enough, too, to have sought American citizenship.

Every year, thousands of noncitizen soldiers do that, through an accelerated naturalization process offered to those who put themselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us can go about our lives untouched by war. And every year, some of those soldiers become citizens only after they have literally been wrapped in the flag.

No other war has produced anywhere near as many posthumous citizens as this one, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Corporal Alcántara is the latest, No. 103. He is the 12th from New York, an honor roll that reflects today’s city: 10 men and 2 women born in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Myanmar and Nigeria.

The Americanization of Juan Alcántara came at his family’s request. Representative Charles B. Rangel of Manhattan helped shepherd the application through the bureaucracy in a matter of days. Officially, the corporal was declared an American from the day he died.

There was a formal ceremony yesterday in the colonnaded Great Hall of City College of New York. Corporal Alcántara’s relatives accepted his certificate of posthumous citizenship. They sat somberly in a front row: his mother, his two sisters and his fiancée, Sayonara Lopez, who fed Jaylani from a bottle.

Like scores of others filling the rows behind them, they carried small American flags. Yesterday was Citizenship Day across the country, a celebratory day for newly minted Americans. In the vaulted majesty of the Great Hall, used on occasion for such ceremonies, 242 people from 51 countries took the oath of citizenship. They were men and women like Lance Whitely, 32, formerly of Jamaica, now of the Bronx. “It’s everybody’s dream to become an American citizen,” he said before the ceremony began.

The new citizens listened to speeches on America’s grandeur and watched a large-screen video of President Bush offering congratulations.

Mr. Rangel, a critic of the Iraq war, left politics at the door. He spoke of a country that is hardly perfect but is ever working to make itself better. Once a combat soldier himself, part of the same Second Infantry Division during the Korean War, he talked about Corporal Alcántara’s sacrifice and America’s debt to him.

Throughout, the Alcántara family sat disconsolately. They applauded with the others and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and waved their little flags. But their hearts were elsewhere.

Maria Alcántara, the soldier’s mother, is clearly a woman of stricken soul. She holds Mr. Bush responsible for her son’s death. Corporal Alcántara’s Iraq duty was supposed to have ended on June 28, a day before his daughter was born. But his tour was extended as part of the president’s troop “surge.”

“If my son had been allowed to return, he would be alive,” Ms. Alcántara said in Spanish, “and he” — meaning the president — “is guilty.”

“My happiness, my everything, is gone,” she said.

The mother, who is not an American citizen, also spoke of being grateful for her son’s naturalization. Still, gratitude does not bring peace of mind, said one of her daughters, Fredelinda Peña. “It’s not a happy moment,” Ms. Peña said.

Unlike others on this day of celebration, the family wiped away tears. When the president’s image appeared on the screen, Ms. Alcántara kept her head down. She could not bring herself to look at the man who she felt was the reason her son did not come home.

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com


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