Ilya Shapiro really wants to go to Iraq. The 28-year-old lawyer and budding conservative intellectual wants to give up his online column-writing, quit his six-figure job at a Washington law firm, and become an Army lawyer to help establish a working democracy where the rule of law was until recently a foreign concept.
But Uncle Sam isn’t letting him-because Ilya’s not an American citizen.
Last month, over Sierra Nevadas and Salvadoran takeout, Ilya told me the whole story, beginning with the fact that he is Canadian. But spiritually he’s an American, he says, and a patriot to boot, which he would happily prove if he could only find a way through the legal thicket designed to keep non-U.S. citizens out of sensitive military posts.
As an associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP, one of the city’s legal powerhouses, Ilya puts in 60 or 70 hours a week on litigation, antitrust, and securities enforcement. He’s about to switch firms: The night I visited, I watched as he mailed an acceptance letter to Patton Boggs, where he begins in March.
The duties of a second-year associate like Ilya sound pretty glum: Laborious “fact-finding” assignments, poring through thousands of emails and documents, searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack that makes a client’s case. But Ilya perks up while describing the legal troubles of Valeriu Pasat, a former Moldovan defense minister whose case he aided last year. Pasat was jailed in March on charges of money laundering in connection with the 1997 sale of 21 Moldovan MiG-29 fighter jets to the United States. Ilya believes the charges were trumped up, and that Pasat was a politically convenient scapegoat for Moldova’s increasingly anti-American political class.
Who cares about the intricacies of Moldovan politics? Well, Ilya does. Whether because of his upbringing or his natural inclinations, Ilya’s a wonk for things foreign. He was born in Russia to Russian parents, grew up in Toronto, and has lived in London and Buenos Aires. The walls of his Northwest Washington apartment feature a watercolor of Mongolian horsemen with, oddly, the D.C. skyline in the background (“picked it up in Eastern Market,” he says), wooden Korean masks, a picture of Ernest Hemingway (for inspiration, apparently), and an oil painting by an obscure Transylvanian artist “whose sister,” he says, “I used to
date.” A native speaker of both English and Russian, he professes to be fluent in Spanish and French and proficient in Portuguese and Italian.
Ilya received his undergraduate degree from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, his masters in international relations from the London School of Economics, and his law degree from the University of Chicago. After law school, he clerked for Judge E. Grady Jolly on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit, in Jackson, Miss. These days he moonlights as an adjunct law professor at George Washington University and writes a biweekly column for TechCentralStation.com, where he discusses subjects from terrorism to law to soccer. His undergraduate thesis, which sits hardbound on his bookshelf near Paul Johnson’s History of the American People and Whittaker Chamber’s Witness, is called “Siberian Law, Patagonian Politics: Evolving Constitutionalism in Russia and Argentina.” Ilya’s also a credentialed conservative: Bush-Cheney ’04 campaigner, a member of the Federalist Society in law school, and president of the Princeton College Republicans as an undergrad.
When I first met Ilya eight years ago, he was a summer intern at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I recall him saying he wanted to argue a case before the Supreme Court. These days, Ilya says his long-term aspiration is to work on the National Security Council or in the State Department. Talking with him, one’s thoughts drift to foreign-born Americans such as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski who have attained all but the highest reaches of power in our government. Such lofty possibilities are certainly on his mind as well. If Ilya’s résumé seems unusually distinguished, his unconcealed ambition seems typical of the immodest, achievement-obsessed young Washington operator.
But behind this young-man-on-the-make persona is a classic tale of freedom-loving people fleeing tyranny to make their way west. In 1942, the Cheka, the secret police of the Soviet Union, arrested Ilya’s paternal grandfather, a doctor who ran an Army hospital, after this foreign-educated Jew was labeled an “enemy of the people.” He was never heard from again, while Ilya’s own father was exiled to western Siberia. During the Brezhnev era, Ilya’s grandfather was posthumously “rehabilitated,” and Ilya’s father, still a young man, was allowed to return to Moscow for college. There he met Ilya’s mother, a chemical engineering Ph.D. whose professional prospects as a Jewish woman were limited. Exit visas became available in 1981 as part of Brezhnev’s policy of allowing Jews to leave as a sop to human-rights advocates. The family moved to Canada. Ilya was four years old.
As a child, Ilya says he revered the United States. “I naturally looked to the U.S. as a beacon for the free world, the place where rule of law flourished,” Ilya wrote in an October TechCentralStation.com column telling his family’s story. “In middle school, I pledged allegiance to the Star-Spangled Banner every morning at my locker, and, to this day, my childhood bedroom sports framed copies of the Founding Documents amid the posters, pennants, and trophies.” He reports speaking favorably for Ronald Reagan to quizzical classroom stares. Last month in our interview he rather uncharitably called Canada “a sleepy country that never had anything important happen to it.” Canada is “not an actor on the world stage.” Ilya prefers a country that can “have an impact in some way.”
In October 2005, Ilya attended a speech at Princeton given by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, whose daunting task was rebuilding Iraq’s army. The speech, “A Soldier’s Reflections on Iraq,” quickly became a part of the war debate as the media seized on Petraeus’s accounting of the varying levels of self-sufficiency attained by Iraqi forces. Less widely noted was the speech’s moving tribute to the selfless efforts of American troops fighting for a new Iraq. “I often wondered,” said Petraeus, “especially while observing soldiers rendering their final salute to a fallen comrade after a memorial ceremony, Where does our country find such individuals?”
Ilya labeled the speech a “call to arms,” and it got him thinking hard about helping Iraqis build a legal system.
He later began emailing Gen. Petraeus through Princeton’s alumni email, “Tiger Net”-Petraeus is also a Princeton grad–to discuss a possible accession. Gen. Petraeus referred Ilya to Jim Haynes, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, and to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He would almost certainly be able to hack boot camp: A college rugby player and lightweight rower, he runs a few times a week to keep up his fighting shape.
Here’s where the problem lies: Non-citizens are prohibited from joining the JAG Corps. No exceptions. Ilya’s H-1B professional visa to perform a well-compensated job is not a route to citizenship, well-paid American-educated lawyer or not. And his firm cannot sponsor Ilya for a green card unless it can prove that no American citizen can fill his shoes as a lawyer-an impossible standard in lawyer-glutted Washington.
Ilya has spent the last three months discussing the options and waiting while Pentagon lawyers and JAG Corps search around for some kind of exception or temporary staging ground for Ilya to get in. Nothing has turned up.
At this point, three options remain: Ilya can marry an American, a senator can sponsor Ilya’s citizenship, or Ilya can enlist as a grunt.*
Ilya says he’s ready to get married. He dates frequently, but he admits he still hasn’t met “the one.” Still, he says that he’s not at all resigned to bachelorhood. Looking around his kitchen, I can see why. His freezer is empty except for a six-month-old chicken breast and just about the only thing in his refrigerator is beer.
The second and very slim possibility is an act of Congress. It’s extraordinarily rare, but on occasion senators or members of the House have passed what is called a “private relief bill” to grant citizenship to individuals for exceptional reasons. Last year, the Senate leadership tried but failed to pass a private relief bill for Terri Schiavo to keep her tubes in. In 2000, the House tried and failed to pass private relief for the Cuba-destined Elian Gonzalez. But there is some precedent for medium-profile cases: In 2000, New York Democratic senator Charles Schumer and New York Republican representative Sue Kelly passed a bill to grant citizenship to marathon runner Khalid Khannouchi, a native of Morocco, in time for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. In 1998, French-born soccer player David Regis was granted citizenship a few days before he played for the United States in the World Cup.
Will any members of Congress attempt the same for Ilya to serve in the JAG corps? Ilya has been talking with one senator and one member of the House, but the chances of success are exceedingly slim. “Strictly by the numbers, we’ve got a difficult case, and I wouldn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up,” the Olympian Mr. Khannouchi’s lawyer told the Washington Post in 2000. The same can be said of Ilya.
The third option is to enlist. Non-citizens can and they do so in droves: An estimated 37,400 non-citizens were in the U.S. Army as of 2003, according to Pentagon figures, including more than 3,000 serving in Iraq alone. That same year President Bush issued an executive order waiving the three-year period for which non-citizens must serve before they may apply to be citizens. So why not be an enlisted man?
“That’s not how I could best serve my country,” Ilya says. “I don’t want to be an infantryman, I don’t want to get shot at.” As a policy-minded, expensively educated, and multilingual lawyer, Ilya has, he argues, unique qualifications that would go to waste should he sign up to be just another trooper.
Strictly from a manpower perspective, it seems odd that someone of Ilya’s ability should have such difficulty getting a job that not enough Americans are volunteering to do on their own. Although last year’s recruiting crunch has been alleviated somewhat, the Army Reserves and National Guard are still consistently under-recruiting. Many servicemen are on their third, fourth, and sometimes fifth tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
All of which means that, barring the wooing of a senator, it may fall to a woman to grant Ilya what he needs to be an Army lawyer in Iraq.
Brendan Conway is associate editor of Doublethink and an editorial writer at The Washington Times.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kaavya Ramesh
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Hadley Heath