WASHINGTON - One of the first U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq, Jose Gutierrez, was an orphaned Guatemalan who at the time of his death was not even an American citizen.
As U.S. casualties in Iraq continue to mount, so does the worry in the country's Latino community that its children are dying in unusually high numbers and are being lured into dangerous service with targeted recruiting by the Armed Forces.
What can we say of the young Latino men who sacrificed their lives in Iraq? That they fought without knowing their enemy, played their role as pawns in a geopolitical chess game devised by arrogant bureaucrats, and died simply trying to get an education; trying to have a fair shot at the American Dream that has eluded the vast majority of Latinos for over a century and a half.
Jorge Mariscal, a professor at the University of California, San Diego
Many in the community worry that Hispanic men and women are being disproportionately exposed to risk and sent to the front lines.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, while Latinos make up 9.5 percent of the actively enlisted forces, they are over-represented in the categories that get the most dangerous assignments -- infantry, gun crews and seamanship -- and make up over 17.5 percent of the front lines.
These worries have been exacerbated during the recent conflict in Iraq. As of Aug. 28, Department of Defense (DOD) statistics show a casualty rate of more than 13 percent for people of Hispanic background serving in Iraq.
The casualty rate for Hispanics during the Iraqi engagement has been ''unfortunate and tragic'', says Teresa Gutierrez, of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER).
''The people who are fighting the war are youths who cannot find jobs or afford university fees because there is an economic draft in the army that is particularly relevant to Latinos,'' she told IPS.
Recent census numbers reveal why the U.S. government might be interested in specifically targeting Latinos.
According to the 2000 Census, Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group in the country. Hispanics now comprise 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, and are the fastest growing minority.
In 2000, one in seven 18-year-olds was of Hispanic origin, a number that is expected to climb to more than one in five during the next 15 years, found the census.
Also, more than 50 percent of the Hispanic population (almost 18 million people) lived in Texas and California, states that are historically large recruitment centers for the Armed Forces.
While DOD officials denied knowledge of any program specifically targeted at Latinos, past actions by the U.S. government paint a different story.
According to 'The Army Times' newspaper, in 2001 Army Brigadier General Bernardo C. Negrete told a DOD audience, ''we've made significant improvement by going after Hispanics in a manner we've never done before''.
''We're giving our recruiters goals to meet in order to bring the Hispanic population in the Army on par with the general population in the country.''
Negrete's plans called for achieving that parity by 2006.
Another tactic suspected of targeting Hispanics is an executive order signed by U.S. President George W. Bush in July 2002, expediting naturalization for aliens and non-citizen nationals who serve in active-duty status during the administration's ''war on terrorism''.
The order, effective for all military personnel who enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, allows non-citizens to apply for citizenship immediately upon arrival at their first military base, rather than having to wait the usual three to four years.
According to Bush, persons ''serving honorably in active-duty status in the Armed Forces'', do a service to their new country so they should be granted citizenship more quickly than via regular channels.
DOD numbers reveal 35,000 non-citizens currently in the active Armed Forces, 15,000 of whom became eligible for expedited naturalization under the executive order.
Department officials strenuously denied that the order was targeted at the Hispanic population.
While two army recruiters in the Washington area denied using the expedited citizenship order as a selling point during recruitment pitches, both told IPS that they mention the ''benefit'' as one part of the recruitment package.
But both recruiters insisted that no potential recruits had asked for expedited citizenship and that Latinos who express interest in joining the military do so for ''patriotic reasons''.
One recruiter did say that since the executive order was passed his office had seen a sharp increase in applications from people of Hispanic background. But both recruiters denied targeting Latinos, and said they were unaware of any policies specifically targeted at that group.
A Defense official told IPS that while he was not ''aware of any particular effort to recruit any particular ethnic group, there are programs that appeal to certain groups''.
Gutierez said that any DOD official who denies the existence of targeted ethnic recruiting needs only to ''check their own website and promotional materials''.
While only 12 percent of Latinos in the United States ever qualify for a university education, she lamented, many are recruited into the Armed Forces with promises of financial help and job security.
According to Gutierrez, once recruited, many qualified applicants stay in the military, foregoing college.
''What can we say of the young Latino men who sacrificed their lives in Iraq?” asked Jorge Mariscal, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, in the Apr. 18, 2003 issue of 'Counterpunch'.
”That they fought without knowing their enemy, played their role as pawns in a geopolitical chess game devised by arrogant bureaucrats, and died simply trying to get an education; trying to have a fair shot at the American Dream that has eluded the vast majority of Latinos for over a century and a half.''
© 2003 Inter Press Service