Sending a Latino to do America’s Job

Once again, it’s G.I. Jose to the rescue.

It should be no surprise that Latinos are being called — albeit, very quietly — to do what most U.S. residents don’t want their children to consider: enlist in the U.S. military.

With President Bush refusing to set a timetable for a military pullout in Iraq, the Defense Department has no choice but to bring up its anemic monthly recruitment numbers — a feat that may difficult without the disproportionate help of Latinos.

While the Army National Guard is on track to miss its 10th consecutive monthly recruitment goal, the Pentagon recently confessed to developing a database to track high school students as young as 16 in order to beef up recruitment efforts. The military will collect information ranging from ethnicity to the types of classes each student is taking.

Nowhere is this creating more anxiety than in the Latino community, where Hispanics were disproportionately killed during the initial phase of the Iraq war, according to researchers at the University of California.

The Defense Department denies going after any particular ethnic group, but why then has the information compiled and distributed among recruiters done exactly that? Approximately 11 percent of the U.S. military is Hispanic, representing nearly 18 percent of the front lines, according to the DOD. With these numbers, it’s not surprising that 40 of the first 100 soldiers and Marines from Texas killed in Iraq were Hispanic.

Still, there are good reasons to believe that recruiters operating among Latino communities are excited about their prospects.

First, the sheer numbers of Latino youth cannot be overlooked. Latinos passed African-Americans as the largest minority group in the United States five years ago; one in every seven 18-year-olds is now of Hispanic origin, according to the 2000 Census.

Accounting for nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, with one third of those under the age of 18, means plenty of potential Latino recruits.

Second, military recruiters know that just more than half of all Latinos graduate from high school, creating few opportunities for many after exiting the public school system. The military addresses this issue by encouraging new recruits to continue their high school education in the service.

Third, Latino youth have one of the nation’s highest unemployment figures in the United States, with one in four living in poverty. In exchange for three square meals a day, free rent, and an opportunity to save for college, carrying a gun in a remote region of the world doesn’t sound half bad.

Fourth, dangling the carrot of expedited U.S. citizenship for non-citizens has enticed many young Latino men and women to come forward. Since President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 making it easier and faster for non-citizens to become naturalized, thousands have signed up. Today, more than 35,000 non-citizens, mostly Hispanic, are active in the armed forces. Unfortunately, some of them, like Jose Gutierrez, a Guatemala native, will be given their citizenship posthumously.

The fifth reason takes a little more explaining.

Signed by President Bush in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act forces school administrators to give lists containing the names, addresses and phone numbers of students to military recruiters.

The law does allow parents to “opt out” their children from these lists by completing paperwork given to students at the beginning of the school year. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit in Albuquerque, N.M., against the military for failing to give parents the “opt out” letters until after the recruiters had the list.

Some parents are signing the letters while intensifying their fight to have recruiters removed from high school campuses altogether.

In comes G.I. Jose.

Many Latino parents, especially recent immigrants, are unable to read English and are likely to be unaware of such legal provisions, leaving them at a disadvantage in protecting their children from military recruiters. Still, many parents might not challenge the government for fear of losing their residency _ even if their children are U.S. citizens. And so, Latino children may find themselves over-represented on these lists.

With over 1,750 U.S. troops killed and about 13,000 wounded in Iraq, recruiters have no other choice to but to continue looking for Latinos to fill their ranks.

(Edward Barrios Acevedo is a counselor, teacher, and freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He can be reached at