C O N Y E R S, Ga., April 8, 2003 -- More than 31,000 members of the U.S. armed forces are not American citizens, but some of them have already given their lives in Iraq. Army Pfc. Diego Rincon, 19, was one of them.
Rincon has been awarded posthumous U.S. citizenship, U.S. Sens. Zell Miller, D-Ga., and Sazby Chambliss, R-Ga., announced today.
In Rincon's honor, Miller and Chambliss are seeking automatic citizenship for all foreign-born soldiers killed fighting for the United States.
"I know Diego is in heaven looking down here and smiling," his father, Jorge Rincon said after the announcement. "He is so very happy right now because this was something he was looking forward to for a long time. He loved this country so much. We are very, very grateful."
When the Rincon family of Conyers, Ga., first got the news of their son's death, all of the memories of his life came rushing back.
"When I saw those people from the United States army coming last Saturday at 3:30, everything changed — all my life," Jorge Rincon told Good Morning America in an earlier interview. "I ask God why, why us, why Diego?"
Rincon died March 29 while manning an Army roadblock near Najaf when a suicide bomber posing as a taxi driver detonated abomb.
Officially, Rincon was a permanent U.S. resident, not a U.S. citizen, but his family said the events of Sept. 11, 2001, inspired him to join the military and defend his adopted home. The Rincon family fled Colombia for the suburbs of Atlanta when Diego was 5 years old.
100 Percent American
Joining the military makes the application process for U.S. citizenship less difficult, but it still takes time. But Rincon wasn't fighting in Iraq in exchange for his official citizenship, according to his 20-year-old brother Fabian Rincon. He said the young soldier was fighting for what he believed in, because in his mind and in his heart, he was already 100 percent American.
Even so, Fabian said Diego and other foreign nationals who die in battle should have their status upgraded to U.S. citizen.
"They're out there fighting for their country, their country that they love," Fabian said. "They were not born in, but they feel so much a part of it that it's like they were born here. That's how I take it and that's how my brother saw it also," he said.
Fabian said his brother was like many other young American guys in his love for cars. He said he hopes there are cars in heaven, because he knows working on his Ford Mustang was Diego's idea of heaven on Earth.
"He bought that car with his own money. He wanted to fix it up. That was his thing. He wasn't into anything bad, just his car," he said.
Last year, President Bush announced an executive order making it easier for the families of foreign nationals killed in combat to apply for citizenship on their loved one's behalf. Miller says it should be automatic.
There are likely hundreds of stories similar to Rincon's — stories of foreign nationals who joined the military because they cherish certain freedoms and opportunities the United States might have offered them. But there are thousands of immigrants who join the military because they see it as the best way to gain citizenship.
Green Card Troops
In Los Angeles, Army and Marine recruiters say 50 percent of enlistees are not citizens, but so-called green card troops.
The military emphasizes those benefits in TV commercials that are broadcast in both English and in Spanish.Foreign nationals serving in the military, who are already permanent U.S. residents, were put on a fast track for U.S. citizenship when the president signed an executive order last July 4.
Leon Chung from Hong Kong is one of the thousands looking to benefit from time served in the U.S. military.
"Actually they asked me if I was a citizen of the United States and I told them no. And all he [the recruiter] said was the Marines will take care of that," Chung said.
Since Bush's order, 8,000 green card holders have joined the military, and many are now fighting in Iraq.
"People from desperate economic situations as well as people who need to have some type of legal status to continue work in this country are signing up at a much higher rate,"said Raul Hinojosa, a UCLA professor of Chicano Studies.
The lure of citizenship is so great that hundreds of people have swamped the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City trying to enlist. American officials had to inform them that the fast track to citizenship is good only for immigrants who are legal permanent residents of the U.S.
"We have put out press releases from the embassy to try to explain to people that they would not be eligible," said Jim Dickmeyer of the U.S. Embassy.
And for foreign nationals who are eligible, and who enlist in exchange for their citizenship, the price is often very high. Marine Cpl. Jose Garibay of Mexico fought for America but was killed in Nasiriyah two weeks ago. He received his citizenship one week later.
The Rincon family says they find peace in the knowledge that Diego, who was less than two years out of high school, died fighting for the freedom and rights he believed in. Their home remains draped in American flags and yellow ribbons and Jorge Rincon wears his son's dog tags and buttons bearing his son's image.
The family watches their home videos of Diego on the wrestling team and getting ready for his high school prom while they try to hold onto his spirit. "Diego was happy to be here in this country, he was so proud," Jorge said.
In Diego's last letter home, which the family received a week before he was killed, the young soldier revealed his thoughts.
"I believe God has a path for me," it read. "Whether I make it or not, it's all part of the plan. "Mother" will be the last word I say. Your face will be the last picture that goes through my eyes. I just want to say sorry for anything I have ever done wrong. And I'm doing it all for you, mom. I love you. Your son, Diego."
ABCNEWS' Janice Johnston and Bill Redeker contributed to this story.