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U.S. Hispanics See Army as Route To American Dream
By Ivette Leyva Martinez
December 8, 2003
MIAMI (Reuters) - For wannabe U.S. soldier Ramsey Roque, the possibility of dying in a guerrilla ambush in Iraq is no deterrent.
Like an increasing number of U.S. Hispanics who regard the armed forces as a route to the American Dream, the 17-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic believes the benefits of a life in military service far outweigh any of the risks.
"You can die crossing the street. It's more risky being a stunt double in the movies," said Roque.
Up to $50,000 in college fees, free medical and dental care and perhaps soon a fast-track U.S. citizenship application procedure for serving military personnel -- they are all key reasons why Hispanics are signing up in droves.
"I don't want to spend my money on university and then find there's no jobs. In civilian life, you pay for your wants and your needs. In the military, only for your wants," said Roque.
According to army statistics, Hispanics made up 12.8 percent of new recruits so far in 2003, compared to 9.3 percent in 1997.
That figure is less than the Hispanic proportion of the total U.S. population, which is about 13.5 percent.
But given that millions of Hispanics do not fulfill the basic requirements for signing up, their participation in the armed forces is more than representative, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Around half of the 39 million Hispanics do not have a high school degree -- a requirement for the army -- and millions more do not have legal residency or citizenship.
Their average age is also lower than that of the population at large, reducing the recruitment pool.
And yet, while the U.S. armed forces have cut personnel levels by 23 percent since the end of the Cold War, the number of "Latinos" serving in the military has increased by 30 percent. How many have ended up in Iraq is not clear.
ARMY PAYS ATTENTION
The army has, of course, taken note.
Beginning in 2000, army publicists Leo Burnett contracted advertising company Cartel Group to design a campaign specifically for recruiting Hispanics.
The new public relations campaign included thousands of Spanish-language pamphlets with the slogan "Yo soy el Army" (I am the army).
"Before the (Iraq) war we sold the army as an opportunity for young Hispanics to achieve success," Ahmad Islam of Leo Burnett told Reuters. "That hasn't changed much."
At a Marine Corp recruitment center in Miami-Dade County's Hialeah, the U.S. city with the highest proportion of Hispanic residents, scores of young men and women gather every afternoon for training.
For many, the armed services offer opportunities they might otherwise not have had.
Maria Gonzalez, an 18-year-old from Nicaragua who arrived in the United States when she was 3, said that for her it is the possibility of having the Marines pay for her to go to music college in New York.
For many others, it might be as simple as putting food on the table.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the Hispanic population was the most affected by the downturn that hit the U.S. economy between 2000 and 2002.
Half a million Hispanics failed to get jobs, a higher proportion than the overall population. Unemployment for Latinos peaked at 8.2 percent in the first quarter of 2002, against a national unemployment rate of 5.2 percent at the time, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a study.
"No doubt, part of what the armed forces offer young people is very attractive -- economic security and the prospect of getting on and improving your life," said Robert Suro of the center. "But to analyze exactly what the real impact of the economy is on recruitment, we need to wait a little longer."
Another major selling point may be just around the corner.
A law on the verge of being approved by the U.S. Congress would make it easier for the 37,000 soldiers legally resident in the United States but not yet U.S. citizens to obtain citizenship, cutting the mandatory waiting period to one year from five.
It would also make it easier for families and relatives of serving men and women to obtain U.S. passports.
"The Hispanic presence (in the military) has been increasing as their numbers grow. You can expect it to carry on growing," said Suro.