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Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado

Illegal Immigration?

Putting a Human Face on a Legal Problem!

January 2008


Rosa Peralta recently received a call from an undersecretary of the Navy informing her that, three years after her son was killed in Iraq, a recommendation has at last been forwarded to President Bush to award Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor. It is news that thousands of Marines to whom Rafael Peralta has become an inspiration have been earnestly been hoping and praying would come.

On November 15, 2004, Sergeant Peralta's Company was engaged in deadly house-clearing operations in enemy-held Fallujah. Though he was not himself required to personally enter buildings, Sergeant Peralta was the kind of leader who would not ask his men to do what he would not do himself. After clearing three houses without incident, while leading his squad into a fourth Sergeant Peralta was hit several times by AK-47 fire, fell severely wounded to the floor and then crawled aside so his men could sweep over his bleeding body to attack the enemy. The cornered insurgents threw a grenade at the Marines entering the confined room while the Americans tried desperately but with little success to get back out before it exploded. Lying in great pain on the floor and nearly unconscious, Sergeant Peralta somehow managed to reach the deadly orb and pull it beneath his chest, smothering the explosion with his body and saving the lives of his comrades at the cost of his own.

Rafael Peralta was born in Mexico City in 1979, and raised in Tijuana; his father was a truck mechanic and his mother took in washing. After Rafael was once savagely beaten by a local Tijuana gang, his parents sent him across the border to live with relatives and attend High School in San Diego. Yes, Rafael Peralta who gave his life to save at least five U.S. Marines, and who will soon be enshrined as one of America's greatest heroes, came to his adopted homeland ILLEGALLY.

While in high school Rafael was approached by a Marine Corps recruiter and, inspired to become a United States Marine, worked to clear up his legal status. On the same day on which he at last received his Green Card, Rafael joined the Corps. While training for war he studied to become an American citizen. His bedroom wall bore only three neatly-framed paper documents: The U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Rafael's Marine Corps graduation certificate. By the time Rafael deployed for duty in Iraq he was a U.S. Citizen and before leaving home he wrote to his brother to say: "Be proud of me, bro...and be proud of being an American."

Illegal immigration is a problem with which our Nation is dealing with increasing frustration and, far too often, without a view of the human side of the issue. We loudly proclaim "We are a nation of Laws!" while forgetting our own roots.
We are NOT a nation of laws, we are a Nation of PEOPLE, bound into an orderly society by law. The very precepts of our Declaration of Independence were based upon John Locke's concept of "natural law," further defined in Jefferson's own written treatise that "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Jefferson then went on to point out that governments and laws are established to INSURE these rights or, in other words, that law should serve societies and not the other way around. Laws are established to serve the best interests of the people and, when that best interest is not being served, it is the PEOPLE that are supreme.

The problem I fear, is that beyond the shallow "Nation of Laws" argument, we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated into an emotionally charged fear of illegal immigration that gives rise to trite clichés, racial and economic profiling, and impersonal and irrational diagnosis of the problem or potential solutions. Take for instance that word that sends shivers through the conversation of those on both the right and the left--"Fast Track to Citizenship". It has the connotation of being a universally BAD idea!

I recently gained a new appreciation for this term while recalling the life of a friend who passed away last November. In 1944 Silvestre Herrera, a 24-year old young man living in Arizona, received his draft notice in the mail. At the time the United States was engaged in a bitter global war and, with continuing high casualties, the Selective Service decided that even though Silvestre and his wife had three small children and another on the way, they needed Silvestre to help win a war. Upon receiving the letter Silvestre's first act was to go and visit his father to appraise him of this new development. What unfolded that day was STUNNING to say the least.

"Son," Silvestre's father told him, "they can't draft you." Then seeing the puzzlement in Silvestre's eyes he said flatly--"You are not an American citizen; you don't have to go. You see, though I have raised you all your life as a son, I'm NOT your real father." As Silvestre struggled to comprehend what he was hearing his "father" went on to explain. Silvestre had been born in Mexico and his biological parents had died in a car accident when he was an infant. When Silvestre was a year-and-a-half old a relative brought him across the border at El Paso so that an uncle--the man he had always though was his father--could raise him in "the land of opportunity."

Despite his illegal status, Silvestre refused to shirk his duty, saying "good-bye" to his pregnant wife and three small children to serve in the 36th Infantry Division that had yielded such heroes as Pueblo's William "Bill" Crawford. Silvestre was still studying for his citizenship exam on March 15, 1945, when his platoon walked into the fire of a German machine gun at Merzwiller, France. As the rest of the unit took cover, he made a one-man frontal assault on a strongpoint and captured eight enemy soldiers. The platoon moved forward, only to come under fire from a second enemy machine gun, protected by a mine field. With his comrades pinned down and facing possible annihilation, Private Herrera attacked across the dangerous ground while the vibrations of his passing detonated mines around him until he stepped on one of them, severing his left leg at the knee.

Watching enemy fire continuing to rake his comrades, Private Herrera hobbled up on his remaining good leg and the bleeding stump of the left and continued his attack until he stepped on another mine, severing his right leg at the knee. Laying in that field, blood flowing unchecked from his severed legs and unable to charge further, he propped himself up enough to continue to fire on the enemy until another squad was able to flank it and knock it out. In 1995 Silvestre put it this way in a conversation with me: "I was protecting my squad with a machinegun. I was trying to draw (the Germans') fire. I stepped on one (land mine), it blew me up. Then I stepped on another one with another foot. I was fighting them on my knees…I am a Mexican-American and we have a tradition. We're supposed to be men, not sissies."

Returned to the United States and hospitalized with both legs gone, an Army officer suggested that Silvestre call home to let his family know he had survived and would be coming home. Sheepishly Silvestre admitted that the family was so poor they didn't even have a telephone. Meanwhile, the Army had a problem of its own…President Truman wanted to present the Medal of Honor to Silvestre as soon as he was sufficiently recovered to come to the White House and the young soldier wasn't yet an American citizen. With military efficiency tutors were assigned, strings pulled to move the process, and before Silvestre was pushed in his wheel chair to meet the President less than six months later on August 23, 1945, to receive the Medal of Honor, he was at last a United States Citizen. (The following year Mexico awarded him the Premier Merito Militar, making him the only man in history to wear BOTH the U.S. Medal of Honor and Mexico's equivalent.)

The "fast track to citizenship" afforded to Silvestre Herrera was a move that I doubt even the most ardent opponents of that approach to immigration can argue against. If one agrees that such action was appropriate in Silvestre's unique case, then one can NOT argue that it is totally WRONG in ALL cases. Perhaps we need to re-examine the idea of "fast track to citizenship" in some cases, and realize it is NOT a term we should fear or revile, and reject out-of-hand.

It was not Silvestre's fault that he was an illegal immigrant--he didn't even know he was breaking the law by living in Arizona until he was twenty-four years old. How cruel it would have been to have forced him to bid farewell to his American wife and children to be deported to the Nation of his birth; a nation he knew virtually nothing about. More than likely, that would be the fate he would face under identical circumstances in today's United States of America. Furthermore, there is probably no one more thankful that Silvestre was NOT deported than the American soldiers who lived because Silvestre answered his adopted country's call to duty.


On a near-daily basis I receive phone calls and emails from all over the United States from veterans, family members of veterans, and active duty personnel seeking advice and/or assistance with a myriad of problems ranging from finding "lost" records to medical needs. In most cases I am able to help or direct those who contact me to someone who can. The call I received last fall from one young woman was especially heartbreaking for more reasons than the fact that it was a rare case in which I was unable offer either help or hope. It was an especially bitter defeat for me since she is from my own home town.

Maria (not her real name), is an ILLEGAL ALIEN whose circumstances are not a lot unlike those of Silvestre Herrera who was BROUGHT here illegally as an infant. Maria's parents brought her into the United States when she was two years old and this is the only country she has ever known. She doesn't speak Spanish and in her own mind, despite her illegal status, she is an AMERICAN. Her two-year-old son IS a legal citizen, born here to Maria and her American husband. Last fall her husband deployed, for the second time, to Iraq. Before departing he was told rather matter-of-factly, "Your wife may not be here when you come home--she faces deportation if she is discovered." While her husband faces daily life-and-death decisions in answer to the call of duty on foreign shores, Maria lives in daily (and a very real) fear that she will be discovered, separated from her child and deported to a strange country to which her only affiliation is her birth. Her fears are something she tries to downplay in her letters to her husband, for she knows well he has enough to worry about, and tries to reassure him she will be okay.

To judge Maria is to "visit the sins of the parents upon the child," certainly not a humane reaction. Some may point out that while Maria had no choice in coming here illegally, since becoming an adult she has broken the law by continuing to live here. From the purist point of view this is true. From a compassionate point of view one must ask, "What would I have done if I was Maria?" If in general, most of us would have done the same, how can we judge and punish her? Would it not be far better to extend absolution. Have we not all at some point done wrong and been forgiven? Is that not, in fact, the basic tenant of Christianity in a nation purportedly established on Christian values?

Frankly, even if Maria did NOT have an American child and were she NOT married to a young man serving his country in uniform, I believe forgiveness is appropriate in light of her circumstances. AMNESTY is even far more compelling however, given those two facts of her family life. "Amnesty" is defined as "an act of clemency by an authority." It acknowledges that a law has been broken, understand the mitigating circumstances, applies a compassionate response, and gives to the beneficiary a new beginning.

I find it ironic, if not outright hypocritical, that the Christian Conservative Right (among which I number myself), can become so emotionally and dogmatically opposed to amnesty in any form. Are not we the ones who on Sunday remember "all have sinned" and "but for the GRACE (synonymous with amnesty) of God I am guilty under HIS law." In fact, the only thing that amazes me more than the failure of the "forgiven" to understand the meaning and importance of amnesty, is the fact that the "bleeding-heart left" is equally frightened by the term and the concept.

It was my distinct privilege to serve my nation in uniform during two tours in Vietnam, a war I was fortunate enough to survive but in which 58,000 of my comrades who answered the call of duty did not. Needless to say, and more so while remembering their sacrifice, in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter extended amnesty to those who shirked their duty and ran off to Canada, I was outraged. I still am! The concept of forgiving those who dodged the draft is for me, an emotionally charged issue. Even today I am hard-pressed to agree with the President's decision in 1977 but this much I can say with surety--our nation as a whole is NOT worse off because of it. In fact, the impact of that action beyond the few thousand "prodigal sons" who were welcomed back home has not negatively impacted my life or our country. Sometimes forgiveness…mercy…grace…A SECOND CHANCE, is the first step in healing our divisions. Call it by any name you want--these are all synonymous with AMNESTY, the concept that sparks such adverse emotional reaction when applied to the immigration debate.

It is quite evident to nearly every American that in order to preserve the nation that we love, we must take serious steps in the name of National Security. Towards that end we MUST: 1) Secure our borders, and 2) Know who is living inside our borders. It is virtually impossible, if not altogether un-Christian and un-American to deport 10 to 12 million illegal aliens. That said, we are therefore left with two options, either to ignore our laws regarding legal residency when it suits our purpose or change those laws to offer a new beginning to those who WANT to be here, who WANT to become Americans, and grant them both amnesty and opportunity.

The last time immigration and national security were so emotionally linked together was in 1941-1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt's Executive Order 4099 resulted in the "rounding up" of more than 100,000 Japanese and the "deportation" of these to armed prison camps. (It is important to remember one important difference however. These were NOT illegal immigrants but American citizens who were here legally and whose only threat to national security was their ethnic heritage.) Even then however, while these who were deemed a potential threat to our nation were dealt with in the United States, in the Territory of Hawaii where Japanese-Americans comprised a large percentage of the population and where their labor was essential to both agriculture and the economy, Executive Order 4099 was NOT enforced. The law was hypocritically applied ONLY where fear and panic were most prevalent (primarily on America's west coast), and ignored in the very place where our nation was most vulnerable and where the Nisei work force was NEEDED.

The same can be said of our current laws on immigration--they are enforced primarily where it is both convenient and where fear and prejudice are most prevalent. In those areas of our country, and they are many, where the labor of immigrants is critical to agriculture, industry, and local economies, officials often look the other way. Would it not be better to recognize them? Would not it be more in keeping with our need for National Security to know who they are, acknowledge our need for their service, and even offer to them the opportunity to do legally what we now take advantage them in as they work here illegally?

When finally given the chance to get out of their American prisons to serve in the American military, Japanese American soldiers of World War II proved not only their loyalty, but the serious flaws in the laws that confined their own family members to barbed-wire camps, even as they fought for America on foreign shores. Given a second chance--not Amnesty for that term implies forgiveness and the Japanese-Americans had done nothing wrong--they proved to be more American than many who had lived here for generations.

In closing, I would like to point to perhaps the MOST unwanted immigrant in our Nation's history. She emigrated to New York from France in June 1885 aboard the frigate Isere, and from the moment she reached American shores she was unwelcome. The needs of this woman whose migration to American shores had been delayed for nearly a decade by a bureaucracy that really didn't want her, placed an undue financial burden on Government officials who refused to support her at public expense. Congress rejected a bill appropriating $100,000 for her home and, although New York City approved a grant of $50,000 to help her become Americanized, it was vetoed by the governor. The 151-foot woman with a torch in her upraised hand at last found a home in America only when Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer rallied public support in the form of nickels and dimes coming in from poor but caring everyday Americans, to build the base upon which she stands today in New York Harbor.

  At her base are inscribed words we as American's would do well to recall as we wrestle with the issues of immigration: 

"Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I hope we who are Americans, the world's most fortunate and privileged people, haven't suddenly changed our minds.
 I want to believe that we as a Nation are much better, and BIGGER, than that.

C. Douglas Sterner



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(January 2008)


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