Undocumented Immigrants in the Military? One Who Lived in Phoenix Received Medal of Honor

House Republicans in Washington have blocked a vote on a bill that would allow certain undocumented immigrants to serve in the military, and the Pentagon is reportedly considering doing that without congressional approval.

The idea's apparently not agreeable to everyone, but at least one undocumented immigrant has served in the military before, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

That immigrant was Silvestre Santana Herrera, the namesake of Herrera Elementary School in Phoenix, and S. Herrera Way, a stretch of street west of the Phoenix VA hospital.

According to the U.S. Army's Soldier's Guide, Herrera was 27 when he found out during World War II that he wasn't born in the United States:

The day the draft notice came, Silvestre S. Herrera learned for the first time that he was not a US citizen. Even more shocking, the man he thought was his father wasn't. Herrera was born in Camargo, Mexico. After his parents died, his uncle brought the infant Silvestre to El Paso, Texas and raised him as his own son. Because he was a citizen of Mexico, he didn't owe service to the United States. Besides, he was 27, married with three kids, and another on the way. But he went anyway because, in his words, "I didn't want anybody to die in my place.

He joined the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard. Months later, on 15 March 1945, Private First Class Herrera was with his unit, E Company, 142d Infantry Regiment, near Mertzwiller, France. As his platoon was moving down a road, they came under heavy enemy fire from the woods, forcing most of the men to seek cover. But PFC Herrera charged the enemy alone and neutralized the position, capturing eight enemy soldiers.

With that threat ended, the platoon continued down the road. They soon came under enemy fire again from a second stronghold, pinning down the platoon. This time a minefield stood between the soldiers and the enemy gun emplacement. Disregarding the danger, Herrera rose to his feet and entered the minefield to attack the enemy. Mines exploded around him, but he continued to attack the enemy and draw their fire away from his comrades. Then a mine exploded under him, severing his leg below the knee. Still determined to stop the threat to his fellow soldiers, he struggled back up on his good leg to continue the attack.

Another mine exploded, this one severing his other leg below the knee. Despite intense pain and the unchecked bleeding of his wounds he lay in the minefield, firing to suppress the enemy while others of his platoon skirted the minefield to flank the enemy position.

His courage and fighting spirit reflected honor upon his adopted nation and that of his birth. Private First Class Silvestre S. Herrera received the Medal of Honor.
Several people have clarified that Herrera was in the country illegally, including the curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, as well as U.S. Army Command and General Staff College associate professor Prisco Hernandez, who wrote the following in an entry on Herrera in the book, America's Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan:
In many ways, Silvestre Herrera's life story is the quintessential Mexican American immigrant story carried to heroic proportions. His illegal immigrant status, work ethic, love for both his Mexican heritage and his chosen country, and life centered on traditional values such as family and faith are all central to the Mexican American defining narrative and its members' self-identity.
Nowadays, Herrera would be what's called a DREAMer, or a person brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were young. Herrera wouldn't have been qualified to serve in the military, nor would he have been granted citizenship due to his service, which ended up being the case.

The bill in Congress, which may or may not get a vote, would allow people brought to the United States illegally before the age of 15 to serve in the military, and would also provide a pathway to citizenship.

It seemed to work pretty well in the case of Herrera's service.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Mexico also awarded him the Premier Merito Militar. According to the Military Times Hall of Valor, this made Herrera "the only person in history ever awarded the highest medals for valor of both the United States and Mexico."

After the war, Herrera moved to Phoenix, and he died in Glendale in 2007.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX.
Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley