November 14, 2003

Commentary

Overzealous military recruiters target Latinos

By Rodolfo F. Acuña

As war drags on, overzealous military recruiters are turning to Latinos for long-term solutions to the Pentagon’s problems.

A recent Pew study shows that Latinos are relatively underrepresented in the military when compared with their numbers in the civilian workforce, yet they are overrepresented in combat units, comprising 9.49 percent of the enlisted personnel, but 17.74 percent of those directly handling guns.

Of the 60,000 immigrants in the U.S. military, about half are noncitizens. More than 6,000 Marines are noncitizens, with the largest group —1,452— from Mexico. At least five Mexico-born soldiers have been killed in Iraq and several more Latinos have died.

The practice of recruiting noncitizens is not new.

The armed forces have a long-standing tradition of recruiting soldiers of color and sending them off to the frontlines. During the Vietnam War, some 80,000 Latinos served, incurring about 19 percent of all casualties. At the time, however, Latinos made up only 4.5 percent of the total population.

Desperate economic situations in Mexico have left many young people prey to military recruiters. There rumors abound that if immigrants volunteer for U.S. military service they will get automatic eligibility for citizenship. Eager young adults in Mexico flood the American Embassy and consular offices with inquiries.

Recruiters have even crossed over into Mexico to look for high-school dropouts who may have U.S. residency papers, according to a recent article in The Independent.

Over here in the United States, the military has actively pushed schools to give it wider access to students. The 1996 Solomon Amendment provided for the Secretary of Defense to deny federal funding to institutions of higher learning if they prohibit or prevent ROTC or military recruitment on campus. Among other things, ROTC targets Latino-serving institutions (universities that are more than 25 percent Latino) by asking them for files of Latino students.

Louis Caldera, the Secretary of the army under President Clinton, help set in motion the Hispanic Access Initiative, which, under the guise of affirmative action, allows ROTC to target Latinos and forces universities to hand over personal data to recruiters.

Among young people ages 18 to 24, Latinos are a prime recruiting market. They make up 14.3 percent of the nation’s youth, but only about 10 percent of new recruits.

Under a provision written into the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, Congress made it mandatory for high schools to provide military recruiters access to juniors and seniors, including names, addresses and telephones numbers. If schools do not comply, they are punishable by law. (Parents have an opt-out option. They can request a Student Data Release Form for Military Recruitment from their child’s school and withdraw the student’s name and contact information from the list provided to recruiters.)

The U.S. military spends between $8,000 and $11,000 to recruit a single soldier. Many recruiters in the Los Angeles area advocate the lifting of restrictions on enlisting undocumented Latinos.

That would be the ultimate indignity.

Undocumented Latinos can’t vote and they can’t access many social benefits. They are in constant risk of deportation. But they may soon be able to die for President Bush’s war.

Rodolfo F. Acuña is professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of several books, including “Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles” (Verso, 1996). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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