They were two very different families. One was from Chandigarh in the northern reaches of India near Kashmir, halfway between the borders of Pakistan and China. The other, from Lagos, the burgeoning former capital of Nigeria on the African coast of the Atlantic Ocean. But their fates would converge with the deaths of the two U.S. soldiers–”both immigrants, both gunners–”killed in Iraq. They had lent their support to the War on Terror in flesh and blood, and the war had taken it.
Uday Singh and Segun Frederick Akintade never knew each other. They died almost two years apart. Singh, a legal permanent resident, was shot while manning his turret during a morning firefight in Habbaniyah on Dec. 1, 2003. Akintade, a naturalized citizen, was killed while on patrol in Abd Allah on Oct. 28, 2004, in his turret when a homemade bomb exploded under his Humvee.
Both men died after Congress passed legislation to ease the naturalization process for military members and allow immediate relatives to adjust their immigration status after the combat death of their loved one. For some in Congress, the legislation seemed an appropriate gesture to honor the service and sacrifices of immigrants in the military and their families.
But it meant nothing for the Singhs and the Akintades.
In both cases, no one informed them about the benefits. They also didn’t know that their window to apply for their immigration benefits had expired, as the law stipulates that requests must come within two years of the service member’s death.
The government awarded posthumous citizenship to Singh, who lived in north suburban Lake Forest. But lawmakers crafted the legislation in 2003 in such a narrow fashion that his parents and sister, who were already legal permanent residents, didn’t qualify for anything more than what they already had.
Meanwhile, Akintade’s family, desperate to use their benefits, has been fighting to adjust their status–”to no avail. His mother in Lagos has been unable to visit her son’s grave in the five years since his death. And his brother is in the U.S., on a student visa that runs out in January. He will have to plan his return to Nigeria unless the family receives the benefits before then. They’re not alone.
As of August 15, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, 148 of the military servicemen killed in combat since Sept. 11, 2001, enlisted in the military as immigrants; six were from Illinois. Like Singh, 90 of those soldiers were granted posthumous citizenship. The remaining 58, like Akintade, had become naturalized citizens before their death or are awaiting posthumous citizenship. To determine whether the family benefits were awarded, The Chicago Reporter attempted to reach all of their families and located 56 of them.
The Reporter found that a confusing tangle of government bureaucracy and a complex immigration system have kept many families from being awarded–”or even informed about–” the immigration benefits that Congress bestowed them. Like the Singhs, 39 families said they were never told of the benefits. And 111 are no longer eligible to apply because of the two-year deadline.
Lt. Col. Les’ A. Melnyk, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, said his agency “would not comment on” the Reporter’s findings. But he said new protocols, which will take effect in December, have been drafted to direct casualty assistance officers to inform families about posthumous citizenship for military members, but it does not mandate that families be informed about their benefits.
U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, a California Democrat, who sponsored the part of the defense spending bill that extended benefits to military families, criticized the defense department for failing to inform families about their benefits.
“It’s horrible that they’re not doing that,” said Solis, who questioned the effectiveness of future legislation if the agencies aren’t abiding by laws already on the books. She first became aware of the problem after visiting the family of one naturalized soldier who was also not informed. “It makes me look like a liar,” she said.
Posthumous citizenship “doesn’t do anything if that’s where it dies–”if you don’t apply it to the families members,” she said. “That’s why I think so many people feel this government isn’t stepping up to the plate.”
The Reporter also found that the issue is compounded by the fact that two separate agencies–”the defense department and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service–”are involved in the process of awarding family benefits, and this has introduced a host of problems to what is already an unwieldy immigration system.
Eric Rojo, a retired Army colonel and current president of Hispanic War Veterans of America, an advocacy group, said the blame should be placed on the many levels of bureaucracy that stand between the families and their benefits. “That’s the nature of the beast,” he said.
“There is a very vicious nature in the system that is supposed to serve the public–” something so big moves so slowly that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. What ends up in the hands of the public is not what Congress intended.”
Immigrants have a long history in this nation’s military. Since the War of Independence, the military has served as patriotism’s proving grounds. Today, at least 40,000 immigrants are in the military.
Their contributions to the War on Terror prompted President George W. Bush in 2002 to sign an executive order expediting naturalization based on military service. “It made sense to me,” Bush said at a naturalization ceremony for three wounded immigrant soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006. “If somebody is willing to risk their life for our country, they ought to be full participants in our country.”
It was the first of a series of legislative measures to give immigration benefits to immigrants in the military and their families. One week before Singh was killed, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 changed several provisions of the immigration laws. It included a waiver of application fees, permitted overseas naturalization and made it possible for families of fallen military members to adjust their immigration status based on the posthumous citizenship of the fallen service members.
Five years later, the system of awarding benefits to these families is riddled with problems.
For one thing, the immigration agency does not publish information for military families in languages other than English. And even those proficient in English might also be misinformed. The defense department widely distributes a manual, titled “A Survivor’s Guide to Benefits,” to address issues that military families encounter, from taxes to insurance to counseling. But the manual, while discussing posthumous citizenship, reports that, “It does not convey any benefits under the Immigration and Nationality Act to any relative of the deceased Service member.”
Melnyk of the defense department said the language will be updated “to better reflect” the changes in the 2004 law regarding family benefits. But he could not say when the change will take place.
The wording was nearly identical in the posthumous citizenship application published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and on its Web site–”until the agency updated the form in August, months after the Reporter questioned it about the language. “That is a flaw on our part that it wasn’t changed sooner,” said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the agency’s Chicago office.
Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the language, while legally correct, could lead families to the conclusion that they are not eligible for any benefits.
“They should have changed that language to reflect the actual language of the statute,” Kuck said, suggesting that it should have a note saying, “while this form doesn’t do squat for you, you may be eligible for benefits and you should talk to someone about it.”
Moreover, some reports indicate the defense department is not equipped to handle the constantly changing nature of survivor’s benefits. A 2006 report published by the Government Accountability Office found that the defense department “does not currently provide a comprehensive, integrated statement for survivors to aid in their understanding of the amount and array of benefits that are available to survivors.” Critics question whether this is the appropriate behavior of a grateful nation.
Rojo of Hispanic War Veterans of America believes bureaucrats inside the Beltway have not designated the issue a priority. “The system is far from perfect and far from really caring,” he said. “As it filters down, it gets to people who don’t give a shit.”
Lt. Col. Margaret D. Stock, a U.S. Army reservist and lawyer who has been working to resolve immigration issues for military members and their families through the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Military Assistance Program, said some of the blame rests with Congress.
“Congress has made a mess of the laws, passed arbitrary and capricious laws–”the only people who understand them are sophisticated immigration lawyers,” she said.
Stock has testified on Capitol Hill about the myriad difficulties faced by immigrant military families. She spoke about the shortcomings of existing laws that are leaving families to sort out the problems on their own. In at least one case, the father of a dead soldier was scheduled for deportation because his application for a benefit inadvertently tipped the immigration agency about his undocumented status.
In an interview, Stock said the biggest problem seems to be a lack of understanding about the complex immigration rules among all but immigration attorneys themselves.
“A day doesn’t go by that someone isn’t misinformed on an issue,” she said. “Our immigration laws are unbelievably complicated, and that’s just the way they are and, until they have a massive overhaul of the immigration code, this is the world we’re living in.”
In May, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, of California, proposed a bill that would expand the types of relatives eligible for benefits, but it would do nothing for many of the families contacted by the Reporter.
It does not include mandates for the defense department and the immigration agency to formally organize their work for immigrants in the military and their families. It also fails to address the needs of families who have timed out of benefits because of the two-year window. And it doesn’t provide any other benefits for relatives who are already legal permanent residents, such as a faster track to citizenship.
There are currently no bills in Congress that would address those issues.
Solis suggested the defense department establish a more comprehensive infrastructure to inform about the family benefits even before an immigrant is deployed. “I’m very distressed about the situation and considering legislation to address the matter as well as sending letters –¦ to urge the agencies to address the matter immediately,” she said.
Kuck said the immigration agency should be paying special attention to military members. “They should have a special form that is for military that should go on top of any other form [the agency] receives to treat this application with greater respect than you treat anything else,” he said.
Kuck said the same attention should be afforded to the relatives of immigrant military members. “They’re sacrificing, if not the very life of their loved one, then their time with them,” he said.
Still, some advocates say that, as the war drags on, attention could be focused on helping immigrant military families, though the controversial nature of immigration reform could hamper new efforts.
Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group, is confident that the next administration will address the issue of immigration reform because it is “paralyzing our ability to do other things.” “The system is so broken, there are so many loose ends,” he said.
Contributing: Alex G. Campbell, Tatiana Granados, Matthew Hendrickson, Lourdes G. Vazquez and Beth Wang. Madelaine Burkert and Anita Valentin helped research this article.