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The Hardest Way to Become a U.S. Citizen

No war has produced more posthumous American citizens than the Iraq War.

By Clyde Haberman


OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

On an August day when some Iraqi's homemade bomb tore through him, Corporal Juan Mariel Alcantara 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. Overall, about 21,000 noncitizens are serving in the U.S. armed forces, the Defense Department says.

Until death claimed him on August 6, one of them was Corporal Alcantara of the United States Army. He did not live long enough to acquire a richly textured biography. He was born in the Dominican Republic, and grew up in New York.

At 22, Alcantara was old enough to have talked about going to college and maybe becoming a police officer, old enough to have a fiancée. 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. 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 Alcantara is the latest, No. 103. He is the 12th from New York, an honor roll that includes 10 men and 2 women born in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Myanmar, and Nigeria.

The Americanization of Juan Alcantara came at his family's request. U.S. Repre-sentative 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 in September. Alcantara's relatives, who accepted his certificate of posthumous citizenship, sat somberly in a front row. They applauded with the others and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But their hearts were elsewhere. Maria Alcantara, the soldier's mother, says, "My happiness, my everything, is gone."

Her son's duty was supposed to have ended on June 28, but his tour was extended as part of President Bush's troop surge.

Alcantara's mother, who is not an American citizen, is grateful for his naturalization. But this does not bring peace of mind, according to her daughter, Fredelinda Peña. "It's not," she says, "a happy moment."