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Dying to be a U.S. citizen

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - The news that her oldest son had been killed in Iraq was more than Michelle Murphy could bear.

Then she found out how he died.

Army Spc. Kendell K. Frederick, a native of Trinidad who arrived in Maryland at age 15 and graduated from Randallstown High School in 2003, had left his base near Tikrit in October 2005 to get fingerprinted for his application for U.S. citizenship. The errand was necessary because the immigration service wouldn't accept the prints he gave when he enlisted.

The 21-year-old was driving back to his base when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle.

"You know, one thing is losing a child," said Murphy, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Randallstown. "But then when you learn of the circumstance, that it could have been avoided, it feels like it was a kick in the stomach."

Murphy, 42, a licensed cosmetologist and stay-at-home mother with three younger children, has channeled her frustration into legislation. This week, President Bush is expected to sign the Kendell Frederick Citizenship Assistance Act, which would ease the process by which foreign-born service members may become U.S. citizens - including a requirement that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accept the fingerprints that are collected by the military.

The bill, which was backed by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, both Maryland Democrats, won overwhelming support in Congress.

"This rights a terrible wrong about how our Green Card military was treated by their own government," Mikulski said. "While they were putting themselves in the line of fire, they then had to stand in multiple lines to get their citizenship."

Cummings said: "The sad part about the story is that Kendell Frederick would have still been with us if his last acts were not connected with simply trying to get some fingerprints that the military already had."

The legislation could affect the more than 20,000 immigrant service members on active duty in the U.S. military. In addition to the new fingerprint rules, it requires the Department of Homeland Security to keep service members apprised of any changes in naturalization procedures. It does not, its supporters say, change the requirements for citizenship or weaken safeguards against fraud.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government has tried to make it easier for foreign-born U.S. service members to become citizens. Bush signed an executive order in 2002 to lift a mandatory three-year waiting period and waive residency requirements; service members don't have to pay an application fee.

More than 40,000 service members have been naturalized since the United States launched the war on terrorism. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan says the agency works closely with the military, both in the U.S. and overseas, to help ease the process. Most clear the required background checks in 60 to 90 days.

But Murphy, whose son had been a platoon leader in the Junior Navy ROTC at Randallstown High School, described a complex bureaucracy that Frederick had spent more than a year trying to navigate.

Shortly before he died, Murphy received a letter calling Frederick to the immigration service office in Baltimore. When she called to say that he was in Iraq, she was told that he would have to write a letter explaining why he couldn't keep the appointment.

Mikulski, who attempts to reach out to the family of each Marylander killed overseas, called Murphy shortly after Frederick's death.

"She was enormously angry," Mikulski said. "She was angry about the war, she was angry that her son died, and she was also very, very angry at the way that her family had been pushed around by the bureaucracy of the immigration service."

Mikulski's own voice rises as she describes the family's experience.

"They did not count the fingerprints taken to become a member of the United States Army," she said. "It was OK to accept the background check so he could wear the Army uniform and go to Iraq, but not to take his citizenship exam. And then, every time she called and every time he called and tried to e-mail from even down in the Baghdad area, they got mixed answers. ...

"So we were mad as hell."

Mikulski and Cummings, Murphy's congressman and a House Armed Services Committee member, agreed to work on legislation.

"She took her pain, and she turned it into a cause," Cummings said. "She said, 'Never again.'"

Family and friends said Frederick adapted quickly to his new country, dropping his West Indian accent and becoming a fan of hip-hop. The leader of Randallstown High's Junior Navy ROTC described Frederick as a quiet and disciplined student who had looked forward to enlisting after graduation.

Frederick joined the 983rd Engineer Battalion out of Monclova, Ohio, and served as a power generator equipment mechanic. But his first experience in Iraq had left him with conflicted feelings. Murphy spoke of how emotional her son had been when he told her that he had killed for the first time.

Frederick visited his family just three weeks before his death. After about 10 months in Iraq, his family said, he bonded with his 3-year-old brother, Kwesi, and spoiled his sisters, Kennisha, 15, and Kendra, 11. And he shared some of his experiences with a mentor.

"He had seen several of his friends get killed, and he had to shoot someone, and he was upset about that," Stephan J. Strzemienski, a retired Navy commander who leads Randallstown's Junior Navy ROTC program, told The Sun in 2005. "He wasn't that excited about going back, but we just basically agreed that it was his duty and that it had to be done."

Frederick eventually became a citizen - posthumously. After his death, his family filled out a one-page form that took about five minutes to complete. Murphy was presented with a document attesting to Frederick's naturalization at a memorial service. He is one of 115 service members so recognized.

After more than 2 1/2 years pushing for the legislation, Murphy describes its expected enactment as bittersweet.

"My son is dead," she said. "I can't bring him back. Even with this law passing.

"For me it's not about him, and it's not about me. That can't be changed, what happened to him. My pain is still there. People tell me it's going to get better. I don't know if it will. If I can help one person, one mother, not to experience the pain that I'm feeling ..."

Her voice trailed off.

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