By Fall 2016 M-VETS Student Advisor Jeremy Glenn
Everyone knows U.S. immigration law is a mess. This time the problem hits a new low, and a little too close to home.
An alarming fact of immigration in the United States is that many U.S. military veterans are being deported each year. In June 2016 the ACLU of California reported that at least 84 veterans are in the process of, or already have been, deported from the U.S. despite honorable service in the armed forces. While naturalization is offered to active duty servicemembers, many do not utilize the benefit due to an assumption that active duty service automatically confers U.S. citizenship.
In 2008 the Pentagon estimated that about 8,000 noncitizens enlist every year, though it is uncertain whether that trend has continued. An estimated 65,000 noncitizens were serving in the military in 2015. These noncitizens are subjected to deportation for any crime that carries a sentence of one year or more – even misdemeanors – after returning to civilian life.
The current law on the books is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The law expanded the list of crimes for which nonresidents can get deported, which includes misdemeanors, and banned immigration judges from exercising discretion in deportation cases. It effectively disallowed any consideration of a noncitizen’s military service in a deportation case.
The sad fact is that a veteran who is brought by his parents to America as a small child, enlists in the military and serves honorably, might never be granted U.S. citizenship. So that veteran, who has never known any other home, would be one minor crime away from being separated from his family and country. This scenario is not a myth; for former Army Specialist Hector Barajas, this was a reality.
Barajas enlisted with his green card and served in the 82nd Airborne Division from 1995 to 2001. He was never counseled about obtaining citizenship or the risks of relying on his green card for permanent residency after separation. Following his honorable discharge, Barajas struggled with post-traumatic stress and substance abuse issues before landing in jail after an incident with police. He eventually pleaded guilty to illegal discharge of a firearm and served two years in jail. Upon his release, Barajas was told that he would be deported – neither his green card nor his military service could prevent it. He was forced to leave behind his daughter and the country he had served and called home for decades.
After his deportation, Barajas met many veterans who had suffered the same plight. His small two-story apartment in Tijuana served as the meeting place for these displaced heroes, and was eventually became dubbed “The Bunker.” The Bunker is home to the non-profit “Deported Veterans House,” which was founded in 2013 to offer legal, moral and psychological support, as well as food and accommodations to deported veterans.
One beneficiary of Barajas’ voluntary services was Marine veteran Daniel Torres. Torres was deported to Tijuana and found himself completely reliant on his fellow veterans at the Bunker. He, too, entered military service thinking that swearing an oath to sacrifice his life for his country earned him citizenship. Fortunately for Torres there was a crack in the deportation regime: veterans who served overseas during a time of conflict are qualified for citizenship even after separation. Torres has since returned as a U.S. citizen and currently advocates for his fellow comrades who have not yet been allowed to legally return to the country they call home.
Torres’ story is one-of-a-kind. He is the first veteran of the Bunker to legally re-enter the U.S. Many more are waiting. Unfortunately, not all veterans survive long enough to make that dream a reality.
Veteran Manuel de Jesus Castano was a patient at El Paso Veterans Affairs hospital, undergoing treatment for Lou Gehrig’s disease and lupus, until he was deported in 2011. The reason? A misdemeanor based on charges that were later retracted – but only after he was deported. He was not allowed to re-enter the U.S. for treatment and in 2012 died of a heart attack at the age of 55. Veteran advocates helped arrange for his burial, with full military honors, at Ft. Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso.
The Castano case introduces a macabre conundrum: the only way some veterans will get back into the country they served after deportation is by way of a casket. The LA Times called this a “final mercy the U.S. government grants veterans who die after deportation.”
Some of our elected leaders are aware of the issue, and at least one is making headway to change things.
On September 21, 2016, Congressman Juan Vargas (CA-51), representing San Diego and Imperial Counties in southern California, introduced a bill package aimed at providing deported veterans the services they deserve. His proposals include allowing deported veterans “parole status” in order to return to the U.S. to receive VA health care services, and providing naturalization services at military training sites. Rep. Vargas also wants the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to coordinate in tracking veterans’ immigration status through an immigrant veteran’s eligibility tracking system. The proposed bills have been referred to committee and are awaiting further action.
The ACLU of California’s report, titled “Discharged, Then Discarded,” chronicles the plights of deported veterans. It also discusses the background of immigration laws, the naturalization of service members and veterans, and the effects of deportation on veterans and families. While I cannot discuss the entire contents of the report here, I do recommend it to your reading. If the U.S. is going give veterans the respect and benefits they deserve, despite their run-ins with the law, the report and its recommendations provide a great place to start.
These deported veterans’ stories are real, and leaders like Barajas and Vargas are doing admirable work to increase awareness for their cause. However, much more needs to be done to adequately support our nation’s heroes. We can show support on the Deported Veterans House’s Facebook page, or sign-up to pledge our support at the Deported Veterans’ website. We can encourage the passage of life-saving legislation like that introduced by Rep. Vargas, or Find Your Congressman and tell them to support H.R. 6091, 6092 and 6093 which would help prevent the unnecessary deportation and loss of benefits for veterans who have earned our utmost respect and gratitude.
Whatever the means, veterans need to stand up together with one voice to bring positive change to U.S. immigration law. We have much work to do to live up to our mantra of “leave no one behind.” Preferably, that display of esprit de corps would happen before a deported veteran’s journey back home required a flag-draped casket.