Marcial Rodriguez, a U.S. Marine who grew up in a Mexican farming village, is offended that the country he went to war for might deport his relatives who are living here illegally.
Three months after the lance corporal returned to Ohio from the fighting in Iraq, the U.S. House adopted a bill that would make Rodriguez's cousin a felon for being one of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.
Rodriguez, 20, said he enlisted in the Marine reserves to repay the debt he felt owed to a country that had given him an education and a home for his family.
"People from many different countries are fighting, not just from Mexico," he said. "We want to participate in this country."
It is unclear how many soldiers find their loyalties similarly divided, but at a time when Pentagon has stepped up recruiting of Hispanics to fill recruiting quotas, experts say a crackdown on illegal immigration would undoubtedly cause resentment in the ranks.
"How do you tell them we're going to deport their parents and grandparents?" asked Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a group that has encouraged Hispanics who do not plan to attend college to join the military. "That's not America."
Willing to serve
Hispanics are increasingly joining the military as their numbers have grown, according to a 2004 study on Marine recruitment by CNA Corp., a research firm in Arlington, Va. The study found Hispanics have done exceptionally well in the Marines, with boot-camp attrition rates well below average.
Hispanics accounted for 16.5 percent of Marine recruits last year, up from 13.4 percent in 2002 and 11.7 percent in 1997, the firm said.
Soldiers and veterans have been a popular presence at a wave of pro-immigrant rallies across the country in recent weeks. In Houston, speakers at a rally this month repeatedly pointed to people in uniform on a nearby bridge, and they received roaring applause, said Eliseo Medina, a top official of the Service Employees International Union.
"They stick out like a sore thumb," Medina said. "When (demonstrators) see people in uniform, it gives them tremendous pride and validates that we are contributing to this country."
At a pro-immigration rally April 9 that drew 50,000 people in San Diego, Hispanic veterans from World War II carried signs that read "We Fought in Your Wars," said Jorge Mariscal, a Vietnam veteran.
"After serving our country, to see our relatives now criminalized through this legislation is provoking a lot of people," said Mariscal, director of Chicano studies at the University of California, San Diego.
A family divided
Rodriguez enlisted in 2004 after graduating from high school in Painesville, Ohio. Nine months later, he was combing Iraq for insurgents near the Syrian border. He barely escaped death when three friends of his were killed by a roadside bomb last June.
Rodriguez is now a freshman at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where he is studying international relations. He said he has dreamed since boyhood of joining the CIA. He speaks English and Spanish and is learning French.
His father, Ernesto Rodriguez, crossed illegally into the United States in 1976 after deciding that he would never be able to support a family in Mexico. He had dropped out of school after third grade and had been farming corn in the Mexican state of Guanajuato from age 16. After getting caught by the Border Patrol, he made it on a second try and worked on a chicken farm near Dallas.
The elder Rodriguez, now 47, became a permanent resident under a 1986 law that gave legal status to 2.6 million immigrants. He moved to Ohio to find work and in 1998 got permission to bring his wife and three children this country. Marcial was 13 at the time.
Marcial's cousin Eli Rodriguez illegally crossed the border in 1999 and moved in with Marcial's father. Eli Rodriguez paid a smuggler $1,200 to bring him across the Arizona desert.
"He's like a brother," Marcial Rodriguez said. "He's just working for a better life, nothing more. Mexico has nothing to offer him."
Eli, 24, married a Mexican woman he met in Ohio, rented an apartment and makes $10 an hour as a landscaper. He said he hopes to obtain legal status and join the military.
"I want to join the military, but I can't. This country has given me a lot," he said. "I would like to serve."