The top U.S. general gave emotional testimony Monday at a Senate committee's field hearing on the importance that immigrants have on the military and how pending immigration laws can affect their future.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace paused several times and appeared to choke up as he discussed the struggles his parents experienced as Italian immigrants and the success his siblings have had in their everyday lives.
"My dad came here, sometimes worked three jobs, but the jobs were there for him and the opportunities were there for him," the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman said at a field hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "There is no other country on the planet that affords that opportunity to those who come."
Pace also discussed serving in Vietnam next to immigrant soldiers, including the first Marine that Pace said he lost in combat. He said he was "still on active duty today for one primary reason, and that is I still owe those who served with me in Vietnam."
The testimony was a poignant moment in the hearing, and it drew praise from the senators on the panel. Committee chairman John Warner, R-Va., said: "General, you have made history, sir."
The hearings are part of the national debate on the current state of U.S. immigration law and how any changes would affect the military.
They are designed to solicit opinions on the importance of immigrants who serve in the military. The committee likely chose Miami for a field hearing because about 60 percent of the city's population is foreign-born, well above the national figure of about 11 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Senate has approved a bill allowing a majority of estimated 12 million foreigners living in the country illegally to eventually become legal permanent residents and citizens, and approving a guest worker program. A bill approved by the House would make illegal immigrants felons and has no provision for future guest workers.
House and Senate negotiators have not worked out a compromise. Committee member Sen. John McCain said discussions with the House were ongoing, with more planned for this week.
"I am optimistic that we can come to an agreement that will satisfy the majority of the concerns that are held," said McCain, R-Ariz.
Pace pointed out that 200 awards or medals have gone to non-U.S. citizens in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that 101 non-U.S. citizens have died in military action since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said it would be an affront to the members of the military who are immigrants to make felons of their family members. Kennedy cited statistics that showed about 24,400 non-U.S. citizens currently are on active duty in the armed forces.
"It is an insult to their dedication to our defense," Kennedy said.
The House has been holding its own hearings, including one July 7 on the Mexican border, as both chambers present their bills to the public.
"This is the battle between the House and the Senate," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I really appreciate Chairman Warner for having these hearings because the House started this."
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a letter to the committee, which was read by McCain. Also there was Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., himself an immigrant from Cuba.
Another subject of discussion was the naturalization of immigrants serving in the military. President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 making immigrants serving in the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks immediately eligible for naturalization. Before the order, immigrants in the military had to serve three years before they could apply to become citizens.
"It just energizes the whole unit" when fellow service members are naturalized, Pace said.
Since the attacks, federal immigration officials have naturalized 24,745 military service members. Over 10,000 scored well enough to use their foreign-language skills in military operations, allowing for a "linguistically more competent military," said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.