Mother fights for soldier's legacy

Measure would ease troops' path to citizenship

November 12, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

It's been two years since Michelle Murphy lost her son, but the tragic circumstances of his death have become no easier to bear.

Army Reserve Spc. Kendell K. Frederick, a native of Trinidad, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while off base to have fingerprints taken for his U.S. citizenship application.

While fighting for a country that wasn't yet his, Frederick - a 21-year-old from Randallstown - had spent a more than a year battling red tape to become a citizen, said his mother. That Frederick, who arrived in the United States at age 15, was immediately awarded citizenship posthumously only highlighted how simple the process could have been.

As the nation celebrates its veterans, Murphy hopes the sacrifices made by more than 40,000 noncitizen soldiers serving in the U.S. military are not forgotten.

"He had to leave the safe haven of his base to go and get fingerprinted to become a citizen of a country he's fighting for?" said Murphy, the anger rising in her voice. "It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I just said to myself that it was never going to happen again to another family."

Since Frederick's death, Murphy has lobbied for legislation to streamline the naturalization process for soldiers like her son. Sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in the Senate and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings in the House of Representatives, the bills are named for Frederick.

On Tuesday, the House passed its version of the bill with little debate, said Cummings. The measure would enable the Department of Homeland Security to use the fingerprints that soldiers provide upon enlistment to satisfy requirements during the naturalization process. Frederick had needed to be fingerprinted that October day in Iraq, even though his fingerprints had been on file with the Department of Defense since he enlisted in 2001.

The bill also would require Homeland Security to update its publications - in multiple languages - when changes occur in the naturalization procedures. Murphy and other families have complained about how difficult it is to navigate the bureaucracy and constant policy changes.

"We want to send a message that when we have young people who are willing to die for this country that we will support them, period," Cummings said in an interview. "In many instances, these young people are willing to do what many citizens will not."

The measure has not gotten far in the Senate. Last year, it was part of a sweeping immigration reform measure that stalled in Congress. Since then, Mikulski has succeeded in pushing administrative changes similar to Cummings' bill, including easing the fingerprinting requirements and establishing a toll-free citizenship number for military families. "We weren't going to let President Bush's failure to move comprehensive immigration reform affect Kendell Frederick's legacy and the soldiers on the battlefield who were seeking their citizenship," said Melissa Schwartz, a Mikulski spokeswoman. "However, what Congressman Cummings did was very important. The best way to see this done effectively is through legislation."

Schwartz said enforcement of the changes is at the immigration agency's discretion. She said Mikulski plans to refile the bill early next year.

Murphy was elated at the bill's passage in the House, but said she won't be able to close this difficult chapter until it becomes law.

"For me, fighting for this bill is not just for my son," she said. "My son is gone and he's not coming back. But it will obviously help other men and women in my community. Maybe that is the reason that my son was here. It makes me feel that he hasn't died in vain."

Frederick's citizenship application was returned numerous times - and on one occasion, a letter was sent to his Randallstown home requesting that Frederick report to Baltimore the following week for fingerprints. There was just one problem - he was in Iraq. When Murphy called the office to explain, someone asked her when she thought he might return.

"I wondered to myself, are these people on this planet?" she said. "It was just frustrating from beginning to end."

After Frederick's death, a spokesman at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes naturalization requests, blamed snags on soldiers who have not followed the procedure correctly.

Agency officials say they have streamlined the process in recent years and that about 35,000 soldiers have become naturalized since Sept. 11, 2001. A 2002 executive order lifted the mandatory three-year waiting period to apply for citizenship. And soldiers are not required to pay an application fee.

"USCIS will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that immigrant service members are provided with quick, secure and convenient processes for all immigration-related matters," said Bill Wright, an immigration service spokesman.

Becoming a citizen was important to Frederick, who seamlessly adapted to his new surroundings in Baltimore's suburbs, dropping his West Indian accent and becoming a hip-hop fan like many of his peers, said Murphy.

"When he was deployed, we discussed it and came to the conclusion you should at least have an opportunity to vote for the person who is sending you off to war," she said. "He thought it was a great idea."

Since Frederick's death, Murphy has become a fixture at local events for grieving military families. While she can relate to the loss of others, she has yet to meet another mother with a similar story.

"People say it gets better," she said. "But the pain doesn't get better. You just learn to live with it better."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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Find Mike Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser

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