The U.S. government says Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia is nothing more than a deserter who disobeyed direct orders to return to his army unit in Iraq.
Mejia does not deny that he refused to go back. He says he witnessed abuse and mistreatment of prisoners at a detention camp outside the Baghdad airport, including mock executions and sleep deprivation tactics like banging sledgehammers on the walls of cells.
His claims took on added credibility in light of the ongoing revelations of abuse, including torture, at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq, as well as at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, which houses hundreds of detainees captured during the U.S. “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan.
“It was not speculative that he felt forced to participate in war crimes,” said Todd Ensign, one of Mejia’s attorneys. “He was there for five months, seeing these things first-hand. He had a duty under international law not to return to the Gulf.”
But in a twist, Mejia, a Costa Rican citizen, also argues that under an 1851 treaty between his homeland and the United States, he cannot be forced to perform compulsory military service beyond eight years.
And as one of the 40,000 foreign nationals in the U.S. military, his case has drawn attention to a U.S. government program that offers the lure of citizenship in exchange for military service.
“Poor people are always desperate,” said Rodolfo Acuna, a professor of Chicano Studies at California State University at Northridge. “That is why they sell their body parts, or have them taken from them. As the war proceeds, there will be more recruitment from minority and poor white areas. Opportunity in the U.S. is limited, making the service an alternative for the poor.”
These efforts do not end at the border. News accounts describe military recruiters traveling to poor border towns in Mexico and indigenous communities in Canada to entice people with U.S. green cards (permanent resident status) to join the army.
And under the Hispanic Access Initiative, recruiters are encouraged to target colleges and high schools with predominantly Latino students many of whom may be illegal. They can even obtain access to students’ addresses and phone numbers, and are free to contact them at home unless parents object.
Mejia was in his ninth year when he came home to Miami Beach on a 14-day leave and decided that he could not in good conscience continue to serve in Iraq.
However, the soldier’s arguments failed to sway the military jury that on May 21 found the 28-year-old guilty of desertion and sentenced him to a year in the stockade, demotion in rank to private, and docking of his pay.
“After eight years, foreign nationals cannot serve unless they’re in the citizenship process,” Ensign told IPS. “Camilo says his commanders tried to pressure him into applying for citizenship, which made him wonder what was going on.”
“He was really being held illegally, and this is another prong in his defense,” he said. “We’re considering filing in federal court, and the Costa Rican government may get involved.”
Mejia is the first soldier to turn himself in to military authorities after refusing to serve in Iraq, but he may not be the last. So far, an estimated 600 U.S. soldiers have gone absent without leave (AWOL) rather than be sent overseas.
Critics say that once in the service, non-citizens have little hope of advancement, since they cannot be made officers or achieve any position requiring a security clearance.
“Non-citizens are more unlikely to be in the Air Force, Navy and support services, more unlikely to have a good education, so they’ll be on the front lines. The military knows that their parents don’t vote, so no complaints. It is very cynical,” Acuna added.
Still, some 13,000 recruits had applied for expedited citizenship as of February, according to government figures.
Some of the very first casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom were immigrants seeking citizenship. José Antonio Gutiérrez, a Guatemalan who crossed illegally into the United States at the age of 11 and later joined the Marines, was the second soldier killed in the war.
José Angel Garibay emigrated from Mexico to California as a young child, and hoped to be a career soldier. His quest for full legal status ended in March 2003, when he died during heavy fighting in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
Both men were granted posthumous citizenship. But a bill that would provide citizenship benefits to spouses, parents and children of enlistees killed overseas has been languishing in Congress since last year.
The Census Bureau estimates that eight to nine million illegal aliens live in the United States, though other sources say the number is much higher. About 33 million legal residents (12 percent of the U.S. population) are foreign-born.
Exchanging citizenship for military service is not new; during the Persian Gulf War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts, some 100,000 non-citizens became eligible for accelerated U.S. citizenship.
In July 2002, President George W. Bush shortened the three-year waiting time for qualified non-citizens on active duty in the “war on terrorism,” allowing them to apply immediately upon enlisting.
But as U.S. casualties pile up, more immigrants may think twice about the price of legal status.
Mejia continues to speak publicly against what he views as an “oil-driven” conflict.
“When you look at the war, and you look at the reasons that took us to war, and you don’t find that any of the things that we were told that we’re going to war for turned out to be true; when you don’t find there are weapons of mass destruction, and when you don’t find that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and you see that you’re not helping the people and the people don’t want you there,” he added on a recent television news show.
“To me, there’s no military contract and no military duty that’s going to justify being a part of that war.”