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WASHINGTON – Joseph Medina’s journey to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall began nearly a century ago, when his family crossed the border illegally from Mexico with Medina, then 5.
On Thursday the decorated 99-year-old Army veteran from St. Paul stood among the monument’s triumphal granite pillars as an exemplar of the rights and potential of illegal immigrants brought to this country as children.
“It’s beautiful,” said Medina, who worked in Minnesota’s sugar beet and meatpacking plants most of his life. “I never dreamed I was going to be here.”
The dream Medina came to promote is the same one driving the two Apple Valley teenagers who accompanied him and who, like Medina, came from Mexico illegally as children and now want to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Guillermo Illescas, 15, and Karen Velez, 17, are among the thousands of young people waiting for passage of the so-called DREAM Act, legislation that would open a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military or attend college.
The U.S. Senate passed such legislation with bipartisan support in June, but the bill awaits action in the House.
“I want to serve the country that’s been mine, basically, since I was brought here when I was 5,” Illescas said. Velez said she has known no country but this one and wants to make her parents proud.
“My dad came here because he wanted me to have a better life,” Velez said. “I want to make them proud and be a role model for my little brother, who is 7.”
House Speaker John Boehner, despite opposition from some of his members, has vowed to move immigration legislation next year — though not as one comprehensive package.
Some immigration advocates, who have waited more than a decade for immigration reform, now seem resigned to a piecemeal approach.
“If that’s what it’s going to take, that’s what it’s going to take,” said Felipe Illescas of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, which helped bring Medina and the teens to the nation’s capital.
“They want to serve,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who met the group at the memorial. “But until we get immigration reform passed, they’re not able to serve.”
Some critics still call it “amnesty,” contending it would reward and encourage further illegal immigration.
Although immigration reform has been stymied in Congress, President Obama announced in June that his administration would stop deporting young immigrants who had been brought to the United States illegally as children.
Deportation was not an issue for Medina, who enlisted in the Army during World War II and served in the Pacific as part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Eighth Army. An orphan who was raised by an aunt and a stepfather, Medina said he had no idea he was undocumented.
The southern U.S. border was more relaxed then. Medina’s stepparents had “green cards,” signifying they were legal permanent residents. When they crossed back into Mexico to get Medina, “they wrapped him in a blanket and brought him over, no questions asked,” said Medina’s son, Michael, who was born in Minnesota and served in Vietnam.
It was not until 1944, when Medina was going through boot camp, that his status was discovered. The Army, however, had a solution. They sent him and two other recruits to Canada, where they obtained immigration papers from the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver and returned.
“That’s all it took,” Medina recalled, “and it made us eligible for citizenship.”
Historically, immigrants have been a regular presence in the U.S. military. They make up about 5 percent of the active duty force and about 20 percent of all Medal of Honor recipients.
“It was a lot easier during World War II for people like Joseph, who was born in another country, to become an American,” Klobuchar said. “It’s actually harder now for these two young high school students who simply want to join the military. They’re not allowed to.”
Medina spent three months in occupied Japan after the war and returned home to Minnesota, where he raised four children with his wife, who died more than a decade ago. According to his son Michael, who heads American Veterans-Mexican American Post No. 5 in St. Paul, Medina led a quiet, unobtrusive life.
“This is the most I’ve heard him talk,” said Michael Medina, watching his hard-of-hearing father in a wheelchair negotiating news camera crews under a bright blue, frigid winter morning sky down the hill from the U.S. Capitol.
“I want these young people to have the same opportunity I did,” the elder Medina told a Spanish language television reporter at the memorial. “I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud of my service.”
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz