An Airman - and Now a Citizen

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of a series of stories about Michigan Air National Guard Airman originally from different countries.)

Anyone who has even been through basic training knows one thing for certain - when the military training instructor calls out your name for something special, it can't be good. But at the beginning of his second week of Basic, Airman 1st Class Eduardo Arteaga's name was called. And that was the start of the best thing that has ever happened to him.

That day at Basic Military Training, Arteaga was sent to see an officer who would set him on the path to his ultimate goal: to become a U.S. Citizen. About six weeks after he returned home to Michigan from BMT, he was sworn in. He is a no-doubt-about-it American.

"It still hasn't settled in," he said. "You're free now. That's what it means. You're free."

Arteaga was born in Mexico City. When he was about a month old, his parents came to the U.S. - crossing the border illegally - seeking, as Arteaga puts it, "a better life, better opportunities for them and for me."

The family settled into the MexicanTown community in Detroit. As Arteaga grew up, he attended school and was basically unaware of his status. In high school, he excelled academically and as a member of the Army Junior ROTC program at Detroit-Southwestern High School. In fact, his ROTC instructor began talking with Arteaga about applying for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"And that's when it all started to unravel," Arteaga says. "When you are a teenager in high school, you're not thinking about things like 'How come I don't have a Social Security card.' I wanted to apply to West Point and that's when I realized for the first time, I'm not a citizen. I'm not here legally."

Arteaga graduated high school in 2003. At the time, he was still 17 and began applying for amnesty and legal status as a residence. A couple of months after high school, he turned 18 and his status changed. Now an adult, he was seen differently in the eyes of the law. In 2004, he received the first of his two deportation orders. He had to return to Mexico - though he hadn't been there since he was a month old. He appealed that ruling, and waited.

"So many times, there were lengthy gaps between court dates," he said. "And all the time in those gaps, you are afraid the whole time. What if I get pulled over for a traffic stop, what will happen? I mean, you have this weight pressing down on you."

Even with that weight, however, life continues. In 2006, Arteaga married his high school sweetheart - a U.S. citizen. And shortly after that, she joined the U.S. Air Force. After her initial training, Arteaga's wife was assigned to Joint Base-Andrews in Maryland. When Arteaga moved to be with her, his case with the Immigration service was transferred from the agency's Detroit office to Baltimore. There, the process started over - and he was again ordered to be deported. And again, he appealed.

That second appeal - and his marriage to a U.S. citizen - finally produced fruit. An immigration judge awarded Arteaga legal residence status in 2012.

Two other big things happened in 2012. After six years of marriage, he and his wife decided to part ways and divorced. As a result, Arteaga returned to Michigan. In doing so, he decided to pick up on an idea that had first formed when he was a kid playing with G.I. Joes and had been such a part of his high school life. He went to see a recruiter. And this time, he was in the country legally.

"I started talking to the Air National Guard and it just made sense," Arteaga said. "I'm a little older now, so maybe active duty wasn't the right fit. But, I waited so long for this. The Guard just made all the sense in the world."

So, just a few months after becoming a legal resident, Eduardo Arteaga was sworn in as a member of the Michigan Air National Guard and of the U.S. Air Force. A few months later, he went to BMT. And now, he is a citizen.

"It is just unreal to me, at this point," Arteaga said.

Arteaga is now set to attend his technical training school, to allow him to serve as a personnel specialist with the 127th Wing. After he returns home, he plans to finish up a few credits he needs at Henry Ford Community College and then hopes to attend the University of Michigan. He also works full-time with a food warehouse and distribution company.

Michael Mitchell, director of warehouse for Sysco Foods of Detroit, has served as Arteaga's supervisor at the Airman's civilian job. Mitchell is also a first lieutenant with the 1433rd Engineer Battalion with the Michigan Army National Guard.

"Ed is an excellent employee," Mitchell said. "He consistently exceeds standards and is always on the company's incentive program, based on his performance."

Mitchell said he believes Arteaga's military training will pay him dividends in his civilian career.

"These guys are an asset to our company," Mitchell said. "They bring leadership out to the warehouse floor and that's a benefit to our company and ultimately our customers. As he continues in his military career, he'll continue to gain knowledge and skills that will benefit him in a variety of settings."

Between September 2002 and May 2013, 89,095 members of the U.S. military, from 28 different countries, have become U.S. citizens, according to the Dept. of Homeland Security.

"I felt stuck for such a long time," Arteaga said. "Now I feel free."

Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks its 97th year of continuous military air operations in 2014.