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Fewer foreign nationals enlisting in US military services

LOS ANGELES -- The number of foreign nationals enlisting in the US military is dropping, even though service now provides a fast track to American citizenship, a review of military data shows.

The decrease in non-citizen enlistees -- who hail from countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, and Germany -- has hit all branches of the armed services, which already are struggling with recruitment as the US presence in Iraq enters its third year.

While US citizen enlistments also have fallen, the drop is more pronounced among non-citizens, legal immigrants the military has long allowed to serve as everything from cooks to front-line soldiers, though not generally as officers.

Although the Pentagon has placed a heavy emphasis on recruiting, officials say they're not concerned about the enlistment dip among non-citizens.

The decline surprises immigration and military specialists, who expected that green-card holders who might otherwise wait years to become Americans would jump at the citizenship offer President Bush extended nearly three years ago.

Instead, the annual number of noncitizen enlistees has fallen nearly 20 percent from fiscal year 2001, the last full year before the changes, to fiscal year 2004, according to military data.

Much of the decline, from 11,829 to 9,477 recruits, came last year alone.

By comparison, annual enlistments among citizens dropped 12 percent, from 264,832 to 232,957 recruits.

Although noncitizens represent a fraction of active-duty personnel, every recruit matters as casualties mount and more reserves are being called up than at any time since the Korean War.

One recent study for the Defense Department, using statistics through 2002, found that noncitizens who enlist were less likely than citizens to leave within the first three years; nearly 20 percent of them left in that period, compared with 32 percent of citizens.

Some 142 non-citizen troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Noncitizens' casualty rates represent 8 percent of the total, despite being less than 3 percent of active duty military personnel.

Bush pitched citizenship, not as a selling point, but as a reward for service.

Last year, more than 7,500 people already in uniform gained citizenship through the military, the highest numbers since the Vietnam War.

But potential recruits who are legal immigrants are less drawn to the offer, pointing out that they can apply to be citizens without risking their lives.

Victor Raygosa and his friends are among the skeptics. After flirting with Navy enlistment -- recruiters would leave their cards at high school football practice and stop by his home -- Raygosa chose instead to work odd jobs and get an education.

''My mother told me if I went into the military, she would go crazy," said Raygosa, 25, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico 10 years ago and now attends Santa Monica College.

A few months ago, he filled out his citizenship application.

''It was easy, a lot easier than joining the military," he said. ''I can wait."

The United States' roughly 30,000 foreign soldiers come from more than 100 countries, with the largest contingent living in California. More than a third are Hispanic.

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