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Veterans Day 2015

Immigrants and their first-generation offspring have been the backbone of our nation's military for as long as we have been a nation. On this Veterans Day, when immigrants, both legal and illegal, have become a political football in a presidential election, that fact is worth remembering.

Half of U.S. troops in the 1840s were immigrants, mostly Irish recruited right off the ships that brought them. According to the Center for American Progress, Irish and German immigrants constituted almost one-fifth of the expanding Union army during the Civil War, or close to 500,000 men under arms. If one assumes that their casualty rates were proportionate, 125,000 of them died or were grievously wounded. As ranks became depleted during that war, blacks were finally allowed to serve and were formed into regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, as they were then called—almost all of them descended from involuntary immigrants to this country. One hundred, seventy-eight thousand of these former slaves served; 68,000 of them died.

World War I provided an opportunity for immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship by serving in the military; 192,000 of them became Americans in that way. Indeed, from 1907 to 2010, 710,000 foreign-born individuals served in the armed forces and became naturalized U.S. citizens as a result, thanks to federal laws encouraging such service by immigrants and granting them an expedited path to citizenship. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars allowed 37,250 foreign-born veterans to gain citizenship, 111 of them posthumously, according to Department of Defense (DOD) records, current only through February 2008. Both those numbers are undoubtedly higher today.

The Second World War saw the greatest number of foreign-born and first-generation Americans in the armed forces. The DOD doesn't keep records on children of immigrants serving in the military, but given the vast influx of people arriving here, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it stands to reason that their children, coming of military age during this country's greatest conflict, would have been in the forefront of the fighting. Men like the Giannella brothers from Paterson and like John Basilone from Raritan.

On June 6, 1944, 22-year old Staff Sgt. Silvio Giannella struggled through chest-high, blood-red water carrying 100 pounds of equipment and crawled up Omaha Beach in Normandy, just 20 minutes after the first D-Day assault wave had landed. Silvio was part of the Army's 6th Engineers, whose dangerous mission was to clear the beaches of mines and obstructions so that tens of thousands of Allied soldiers could follow more safely. In April 1945, half a world away, Silvio's brother, Fiore, fought on Iwo Jima with the Marines. It was the fiercest, most costly battle of the Pacific campaign. Fiore Giannella died on Iwo Jima, as did Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone.

Basilone had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his earlier heroism at the Battle of Guadalcanal, where he and his 15-man squad held off 3,000 Japanese soldiers for two days, until reinforcements arrived. When they did, only Basilone and two of his men remained alive. The Marine Corps brought Sgt. Basilone stateside after Guadalcanal, using him to sell war bonds, but Basilone balked at such a cushy assignment while his fellow Marines were still dying in droves. He pushed to be reassigned back to the war zone and finally got his wish, only to die in still another heroic effort, for which he was awarded, posthumously, the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest award after the Medal of Honor. Basilone became the most decorated enlisted Marine of the Second World War.

Silvio and Fiore Giannella were Italian immigrants, brought here as children by their parents; John Basilone was born here, the son of an Italian immigrant. But hundreds of stories similar to theirs could be told, substituting only the country of origin in melting-pot America.

Serving in the military as a way to gain citizenship is not open to people in this country illegally, even if they came as young children. The DREAM Act – an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – is a proposal to remedy that situation. It has been introduced during every session of Congress for the past 14 years. This bipartisan bill would provide paths to legal status and, eventually, citizenship for the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants brought here as children by their parents, but raised and educated as Americans. One of those paths requires two years of honorable service in the U.S. military. Unfortunately, the DREAM act has failed to pass both houses of Congress every single time it was offered, despite the willingness of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama to sign it.

The closest the DREAM act came to becoming law was in the lame-duck congressional session of 2010, after the election of dozens of Tea Party Republicans in the November 2010 elections, but before they took office in January 2011. The House of Representatives passed the bill on December 8, 2010, and sent it to the Senate, where 52 senators voted in favor of it, but that tally was eight votes shy of the 60-vote super-majority required under the Senate's filibuster rule. Opposition to the measure has come almost entirely from Republicans.

A strong national defense has always been a core principle of the Republican Party, even within the Freedom Caucus, its ultra-conservative wing. It's a shame that so many of them have apparently overlooked this potentially significant asset in not only bolstering our over-extended military but also strengthening the very fiber of America. Returning veterans come home as better citizens. One example? Silvio Giannella went back to Paterson after his service, expanded the family business – the Giannella Baking Company – and employed thousands of northern New Jersey residents over the years. He died at 88, a true American patriot and war hero, having enriched the lives of all who knew him.

In Winston Churchill's oft-quoted line, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," the great British leader was referring to outnumbered Royal Air Force pilots who fought off the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, allowing England to fight on, alone, until the United States was drawn into that war and victory was eventually achieved. The sentiment in Churchill's remark could readily be applied to the contributions made by immigrants to this nation's defense. Except that we are not talking about a few. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and first-generation Americans have answered the call to arms, in every conflict since this nation's founding. Yes, that is a fact worth remembering, and not just on Veterans Day.
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