L.A. Cardinal Urges Citizenship for Immigrant Troops

LOS ANGELES – The head of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese urged President Bush on Tuesday to quickly grant citizenship to immigrant soldiers fighting in Iraq, but the White House said they are already eligible for expedited consideration.

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony made the proposal in a letter sent on Tuesday to the White House, one day after he officiated at a funeral mass for of Marine Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a Guatemalan immigrant and one of the first combat casualties of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Gutierrez, 28, who died just hours after U.S. ground troops moved into southern Iraq on March 21, was granted posthumous citizenship along with two other soldiers who died in battle. He had joined the Marines last year to take advantage of opportunities for expedited citizenship.

In a letter faxed to the White House, the cardinal asked Bush to grant U.S. citizenship to non-native members of the U.S. Armed Services upon their honorable discharge — rather than wait several years after they applied.

“There is something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield to earn citizenship,” Mahony wrote.

The Bush administration has not had an opportunity to study Mahony’s letter, but it respects Mahony’s views, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

However, he said, immigrant soldiers are eligible for expedited citizenship under an executive order issued by Bush last July. That order, which remains in effect, applies to active-duty and honorably discharged soldiers serving “during … the war against terrorists of global reach,” and grants them immediate eligibility to apply for citizenship.

“The president issued the executive order because he believes it is a way to show our gratitude for those men and women who are bravely serving their adopted country,” he said.

Ordinarily, immigrants must live in the United States for at least five years before they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services said. The ensuing qualification process can take years to complete.

In peacetime, non-citizens who serve in the U.S. armed forces are allowed to apply for citizenship after three years of service.

About 37,000 non-citizens, who hold permanent residency papers commonly known as “green cards,” now serve in the U.S. military.