Jose Gutierrez gave his life for this country like the many others that we honor today on Memorial Day except that he did not have the title of citizen when he enlisted nor when he died. The 22-year-old Guatemalan orphan is often remembered as one of the first U.S. military members to die in the Iraq War. However, for immigrant advocates he is often remembered as the face of what the undocumented border crossers can and want do for this country – serve it and honor it.
You see Lance Corporal Gutierrez entered the country illegally after a harrowing trek from Guatemala via Mexico to the U.S. He was only 11 years old when he left Guatemala. He was immediately arrested by immigration officials but as an unaccompanied minor, he was allowed to stay. I am sure, that legal gesture of humanity was never forgotten by this young man without a country. Though he received his legal residence when he turned 18-years-old he had not completed his citizenship process when he died on March 21, 2003 in southern Iraq.
Gutierrez was granted his citizenship papers posthumously.
Would young Gutierrez have felt as patriotic with all the anti-immigrant rhetoric of today, with the persistent perception of the undocumented as only takers? What would he think if he heard Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney wishing the likes of Gutierrez, the illegal, would self-deport.
We will never know because he died fighting for a country he always called home even when he wore the title of ‘illegal alien’ and not Lance Corporal.
The country’s history is sprinkled with countless women and men who are foreign-born and served in the military. Recent figures show that twelve percent of the foreign-born serving this country are not citizens and most come from Latin America.
So at a time in the country where there is much political debate around how many immigrants should we allow into the country legally and what to do with those here illegally, these brave men and women are focused on serving and protecting.
More than 100 immigrants have been granted citizenship posthumously after dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is bittersweet to honor Jose Gutierrez who died for a country that many would say was not his, lucky for us he just never realized it nor needed papers to prove it to himself.