Gunnery Sgt. Joe Leija was the ground safety officer for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing before he recently retired

Gunnery Sgt. Joe Leija was the ground safety officer for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing before he recently retired after 22 years of honorable and faithful service to his nation.

Illegal immigration is a hot topic, a great debate in his — and our — nation these days. And Leija’s story is not unlike the stories of many in our nation. His is a story of illegal immigration, of redemption, of a little help, of assimilation, of transformation and of service.

But before I tell Leija’s story, why don’t we cover the facts about illegal immigration? Social media is overrun with so-called facts about illegal immigration, many of which are just plain false. We can’t even agree on what to call illegal immigrants in our nation. For the purposes of this column, I will call them illegal because they are illegal. They did not follow current legal processes to cross the borders of our nation.

While we can’t agree on what to call them, the Pew Foundation, a trusted polling organization, has some facts I think we can trust on illegal immigration. The foundation calls illegal immigrants “unauthorized,” which is just a softer term for illegal. So let’s review a few of the Pew Foundation’s facts about illegal (or unauthorized) immigration:

“1. There were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2014. The population has remained essentially stable for five years, and currently makes up 3.5 percent of the nation’s population.

“2. Mexicans make up about half of all unauthorized immigrants (52 percent), though their numbers have been declining in recent years. There were 5.9 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2012, down from 6.4 million in 2009.”

Leija, however, cares less about statistics. Sure, his family is of Mexican descent and was initially illegal. But two generations later, he is a true, blue American, more American than those of European descent who don’t — or won’t — serve their nation.

Leija’s grandfather, Lucio Leija, immigrated illegally to the United States from Monterey, Mexico before we knew we had an emigration problem. He joined the Army and was released after completing basic training because he had 11 kids — his superiors determined his family needed him worse than the Army.

Lucio wasn’t one to take handouts. But he did, because he was a veteran, qualify for a low interest VA loan. This allowed him to buy a house. He didn’t get much help from the government, but combined with working very hard, the little help he did get ultimately lifted him out of poverty.

So Leija’s family didn’t go hungry. But the gunny still ate cow heads as a kid. His family could afford cow heads.

One of Lucio’s sons — Gunny Leija’s father — joined the Marines, earned the title U.S. Marine and honorably served his new nation. Lucio’s grandson Mark — Gunny Leija’s brother — joined the Air Force, retired as a master sergeant, and is now pursuing his Ph.D.

Thinking he had all of life’s answers, Gunny Leija dropped out of school in the eighth grade, ultimately working hard, manual labor as a roughneck on Texas oil rigs before finally seeing the value in education, completing his GED, and joining the Army National Guard. He attended community college to further improve his education. He left the Army Guard to join the Marine Corps — Army basic training didn’t (and still doesn’t) count toward Marine Corps recruit training — completed basic training, and is now retired from the Marines after 22 years of military service (two with the Army National Guard and 20 with the Corps) with a wife and two kids in tow starting his new life as a civilian.

Gunny Leija’s story transcends statistics. What are we going to do about the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country today? Neither of us have the answers to this question nor to our nation’s many other immigration challenges. No one does.

But here’s what we do know. Gunny Leija is an example of the American dream ¬— of a little help, of hard work, of an immigrant family that in only two generations has achieved a level of success unimaginable by Grandpa Lucio Leija when he immigrated illegally to the United States in the 1930s.

Sure, we have immigration problems. But Gunny Leija’s positive tune needs to be played by our political orchestra at least as much as the sour notes played by some of our politicians and by social media on this issue.

If even 10 percent of the product of illegal immigration results in men like Gunny Leija, then we’re OK. Oh, did I mention that Gunny Leija’s son is serving in the Army, following in his great-grandfather Lucio’s footsteps?

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at fetzerab@ec.rr.com.