Marcial Rodriguez, a US Marine reservist who grew up in a Mexican farming village, is offended that the country he went to war for might deport his relatives who are living here illegally.
Three months after the lance corporal returned to Ohio from the fighting in Iraq, the US House adopted a bill that would make Rodriguez's cousin a felon for being one of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Rodriguez, 20, said he enlisted in the Marine reserves to repay the debt he felt owed to a country that had given him an education and a home for his family.
''People from many different countries are fighting, not just from Mexico," he said. ''We want to participate in this country."
It is unclear how many troops find their loyalties similarly divided, but at a time when the Pentagon has stepped up recruiting of Hispanics to fill recruiting quotas, specialists say a crackdown on illegal immigration would cause resentment in the ranks.
''How do you tell them we're going to deport their parents and grandparents?" asked Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which has encouraged Hispanics who do not plan to attend college to join the military. ''That's not America."
Hispanics are increasingly joining the military as their numbers have grown, according to a 2004 study on Marine recruitment by CNA Corp., a research firm in Arlington, Va. Hispanics accounted for 16.5 percent of Marine recruits last year, up from 13.4 percent in 2002 and 11.7 percent in 1997, the firm said.
Marines, soldiers, and veterans have been a popular presence at a wave of proimmigrant rallies across the country in recent weeks. In Houston, speakers at a rally this month repeatedly pointed to people in uniform on a nearby bridge, and they received roaring applause, said Eliseo Medina, a top official of the Service Employees International Union.
Rodriguez enlisted in 2004 after graduating from high school in Painesville, Ohio. Nine months later, he was combing Iraq for insurgents near the Syrian border. He barely escaped death when three of his friends were killed by a roadside bomb last June.
Rodriguez is now a freshman at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. His father, Ernesto Rodriguez, crossed illegally into the United States in 1976 after deciding that he would never be able to support a family in Mexico.
The elder Rodriguez, now 47, became a permanent resident under a 1986 law that gave legal status to 2.6 million immigrants.
Marcial's cousin Eli Rodriguez illegally crossed the border in 1999 and moved in with Marcial's father in Ohio. Eli Rodriguez paid a smuggler $1,200 to bring him across the Arizona desert.
''He's like a brother," Marcial Rodriguez said. ''He's just working for a better life, nothing more."