LAND OF OPPORTUNITY? THE AMERICAN DREAM BECOMES A NIGHTMARE FOR DEPORTED MILITARY VETERANS

By Spring 2018 M-VETS Student-Advisor

1U.S. military veterans who have been deported to Mexico are seen honoring fallen soldiers on Memorial Day in Juarez, Mexico. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

[1]The United States of America, a country formed by immigrants, is referred to as the “Land of Opportunity” where dreams of success can come true with hard work and perseverance. The U.S. military is one such opportunity for immigrants. Certain noncitizens are eligible to enlist in the military and are then able to pursue an expedited path to citizenship.  However, the potential consequences for veterans who have honorably served but have not been naturalized as citizens can be severe, with countless veterans deported each year. For these individuals, the Land of Opportunity ignores their contributions and service to the United States and forces them to leave the country they swore to defend.

Opportunities for Noncitizens to Join the Military

Section 504 of Title 10 of the United States Code (“U.S.C.”) establishes the citizenship and residency requirements for serving in all branches of the U.S. armed forces. Under 10 U.S.C. § 504(b)(1), a person may join the military if he is a citizen of the United States or a “lawfully admitted permanent resident,”[2] which is also referred to as a permanent resident alien, resident alien permit holder, or Green Card holder.

In addition to lawful permanent residents being eligible to join the U.S. military, in 2008, the Department of Defense (“DoD”) established the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (“MAVNI”) program. This pilot program authorizes a limited number of “legally present” noncitizens, including refugees, asylees, and those in certain other non-immigrant categories, to join the military if they possess skills deemed critical, including health care skills and expertise in specified foreign languages.[3]

Under the statute and through programs like MAVNI, noncitizens can and do join the U.S. military. In fact, noncitizens have served in the U.S. military dating as far back as the Revolutionary War.  About 8,000 noncitizens join each year, and approximately 35,000 noncitizens are currently serving in an active duty status in the U.S. armed forces.[4]

Naturalization Opportunities for Noncitizens in the Military

Joining the military provides several benefits for noncitizens, including a fast-track to citizenship. The Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) includes special provisions that permit lawful permanent residents who have served in the U.S. armed forces to be naturalized as U.S. citizens through an expedited process.  Under the INA, most naturalization applicants must have continuously resided in the United States as a permanent resident for at least five years.  This requirement is waived for those who have served in the military.[5]  Further, the INA also waives the requirement that an applicant reside in the state in which the application for naturalization is filed for a minimum of three months.[6]  The naturalization process can be further expedited if the individual served honorably during a designated period of hostility,[7] including during the War on Terrorism from September 11, 2001, to the present.[8]

Additionally, the MAVNI program, described above, “allows certain non-citizens legally present in the United States to join the U.S. armed forces in exchange for immediate eligibility for U.S. citizenship.”[9] Individuals who join the military through MAVNI are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship without first becoming lawful permanent residents.  “An individual who joins the armed forces through this program is able to move from nonimmigrant, asylee, refugee, or [Temporary Protected Status] directly to U.S. citizenship.”[10]

Prior to Fiscal Year 2018, one day of service in the military during a designated period of hostility was sufficient for a noncitizen to be eligible for expedited citizenship. However, on October 13, 2017, the DoD issued new policy that requires noncitizen applicants to first obtain a favorable background and security suitability determination, complete basic training, and serve for 180 consecutive days, or one year in a reserve component, and acquire an honorable characterization of service determination.[11]  While this is more burdensome than prior to the policy change, it still reflects a more expedited process for noncitizens with military service compared to other noncitizens.

Deportation of Veterans Who Have Not Been Naturalized

Under existing laws and policies, noncitizen veterans risk being permanently expelled from the United States if convicted of a crime. Immigration laws provide for deportation and permanent exile of a noncitizen who is convicted of an “aggravated felony.”  While this sounds like it only applies to the most serious of offenses, “an ‘aggravated felony’ does not require the crime to be ‘aggravated’ or a ‘felony’ to apply.”[12] Rather, under the INA, “aggravated felony” covers over 30 crimes – with the list regularly growing – and includes minor drug crimes and many non-violent misdemeanors such as tax evasion and failing to appear in court.[13]  Further, if Congress adds a new crime to the list of aggravated felonies, noncitizens who previously have been convicted of such crime become immediately deportable.[14]

The Supreme Court recently weighed in on the aggravated felony provision of the INA in Sessions v. Dimaya.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court determined that a “crime of violence” under the aggravated felony provision was unconstitutionally vague.[15]  Given the Court’s ruling, noncitizens can no longer be deported for being convicted of a “crime of violence,” defined as a felony that, “by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”[16]  The decision seems like a win for noncitizens by limiting the types of crimes that may justify deportation, but it is not likely to have a significant impact on the number of noncitizens removed for committing violent offenses as there are several other violent crimes listed as aggravated felonies.  While the case has brought attention to the types of crimes that result in automatic deportation, the Court did not specifically address the less serious, non-violent offenses that are considered aggravated felonies under the INA, so those provisions remain valid.

In addition to being subject to deportation, an aggravated felony conviction also results in the individual becoming ineligible for most forms of relief from deportation, such as cancellation of removal and asylum.[17]  Further, noncitizens convicted of aggravated felonies become permanently ineligible from being readmitted into the United States in the future.[18]  And there is currently no exemption in the immigration laws and policies related to military service.  Therefore, it is possible for a misdemeanor conviction to result in permanent exile from the United States, even for an individual who has demonstrated loyalty to the nation through honorable service in the military.

Ironically, veterans who are deported after being convicted of an aggravated felony can only return to the United States upon their death.[19]  The Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) provides that all veterans, without regard to citizenship status or deportation, are entitled to burial at a national cemetery with a Government headstone or marker and full military honors.  The VA will even contribute up to $300 to return the deportee’s remains to the United States for burial.[20]  “Every deported veteran…may be welcomed back and honored as Americans in death, despite being banished from the United States in life.”[21]

While expedited citizenship is an option for noncitizens in the military, many are unaware of this option or commonly have the misconception that their military service automatically confers citizenship.[22]  “[T]he federal government failed to ensure that noncitizens in the military received accurate information about military naturalization.”[23]  The United States does not track how many noncitizen veterans are deported each year, but it is estimated that hundreds – if not thousands – of veterans have been deported over the course of the last several years.[24]  Perhaps if more effort was expended explaining to noncitizens in the military how they may be naturalized and helping those individuals navigate the labyrinth that is the immigration process, deportation of military veterans could be avoided.

The Debate: Which is More Important – Veteran Status or Immigrant Status?

As part of their military service, veterans swore to honor and defend the U.S. Constitution; they risked losing their lives to protect the rest of the nation. Given this commitment and service, should noncitizen veterans be treated as U.S. citizens with respect to criminal sanctions (e.g., charged, convicted, and punished for their crimes, but not deported)?  Alternatively, is deportation and ineligibility for readmission to the United States appropriate given the individual’s immigrant status and criminal conviction?

As mentioned, immigration laws related to deportation do not currently provide any kind of waiver or exemption for those with military service. Members of Congress may be unwilling to fight for modification of these laws to protect veterans facing deportation as it could be perceived as advocating for convicted criminals.[25]  Similarly, some veterans and veterans’ groups argue that although veterans should be held in high regard, they should also follow the law.[26]  Immigrant veterans should not receive sympathy if they have committed a crime, and an honorable discharge should not serve as a “free pass” to prevent deportation.[27]

On the opposite side, this is considered a veterans’ issue, not an immigration issue, and veterans who have honorably defended the United States should be entitled to special treatment for the purpose of immigration law. For instance, Representative Thompson has introduced legislation to amend the INA to protect noncitizen veterans by prohibiting deportation of any noncitizen veteran who has honorably served but has been convicted of an aggravated felony.[28]  As Representative Thompson stated, “[i]f someone is willing to put on the uniform of the United States military, the last thing they should have to worry about is their immigration status…we shouldn’t be deporting them.”[29]  Similarly, Representative Grijalva proposed to amend the INA to prevent the deportation of veterans who commit non-serious crimes.[30]  Under this bill, veterans who commit felonies and serious misdemeanors (including misdemeanors related to domestic violence, sexual assault, and illegal firearms possession, or resulting in a prison term of more than 90 days) would still be subject to deportation.[31]  Despite apparent congressional support for modifying the INA to provide greater leniency for noncitizen veterans,[32] these bills have not advanced within Congress.

Rather than tackling complex immigration laws, another perspective emphasizes addressing the factors that may lead a noncitizen veteran to commit a criminal act resulting in deportation. After separating from the military, many noncitizen veterans return to low-income and/or high-crime neighborhoods and struggle with the transition to civilian life.[33]  These veterans face obstacles ranging from challenges as basic as finding employment to more complicated matters of dealing with physical and mental injuries related to their military service.[34]  The crimes for which deported veterans are convicted may be indicative of the struggles they face with returning to civilian life.  For instance, in 2012, over three-quarters of incarcerated veterans had been discharged honorably or under honorable conditions.[35]  However, these individuals were more likely than non-veterans to have been convicted of violent offenses.[36]  Because there is a requirement that all military enlistees – both citizens and noncitizens – not have a felony criminal conviction before joining the military, some have suggested that this post-military violent criminal behavior indicates a need to provide greater or more effective resources to support veterans separating from the military to prevent this criminal conduct.[37]

As these competing viewpoints may indicate, the future of this debate remains unclear. The current Presidential administration appears focused on tightening immigration laws and policies, but there is some Congressional support for modifying immigration laws to address the deportation rules as they relate to our military veterans.  Regardless of the outcome of this debate on the legislative side, there is evidence that greater attention may be warranted in developing more effective policies and programs to support veterans with the unique struggles they face upon transitioning to civilian life to prevent criminal behavior that could lead to deportation.  Further, improved assistance with navigating the naturalization process could be provided to noncitizens with military service to avoid the deportation debate entirely.

[1] Kristine Phillips, The Story Behind This Powerful Photo of Deported Military Veterans Saluting the U.S. Flag, Wash. Post (Nov. 16, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/11/16/the-story-behind-this-powerful-photo-of-deported-military-veterans-saluting-the-american-flag/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f46944a82810.

[2] 10 U.S.C. § 504(b)(1)(A)-(B) (2006). Additionally, under various international agreements, citizens of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau may also join the U.S. military. See 10 U.S.C. § 504(b)(1)(C) (2006)

[3] Dep’t of Def., Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) Recruitment Pilot Program 1 (2016). In Fiscal Year 2017, the DoD suspended the MAVNI program and is not currently accepting new applicants. What is MAVNI? Information for Designated School Officials, Dep’t of Homeland Sec., https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/what-is-mavni-information-for-designated-school-officials (last visited May 11, 2018).

[4] Greg McLawsen, Can Immigrants Serve in the US Military? 8 Q&As About Non-Citizen Service, Avvo Stories (Sep. 6, 2017), http://stories.avvo.com/rights/immigration/can-immigrants-serve-us-military-8-rules-non-citizen-service.html; The U.S. Military Helps Naturalize Non-Citizens, Military.com, https://www.military.com/join-armed-forces/eligibility-requirements/the-us-military-helps-naturlize-non-citizens.html (last visited Apr. 14, 2018).

[5] 8 U.S.C. § 1439(a) (2008).

[6] Id.

[7] 8 U.S.C. § 1440(a) (2003).

[8] Exec. Order No. 13,269, 67 Fed. Reg. 45,287 (July 8, 2002).

[9] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enf’t, F and M Nonimmigrants and MAVNI: A Guide for Designated School Officials 1 (May 2016).

[10] Id.

[11] Jim Caramone, DoD Announces Policies Affecting Foreign Nationals Entering Military, Dep’t of Def. (Oct. 13, 2017), https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1342430/dod-announces-policies-affecting-foreign-nationals-entering-military.

[12] Am. Immigration Council, Aggravated Felonies: An Overview 1 (Dec. 2016).

[13] See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43).

[14] See id.

[15] Sessions v. Dimaya, No. 15-1498, slip op. at 1 (U.S. Apr. 17, 2018).

[16] 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(F); 18 U.S.C. § 16(b).

[17] Am. Immigration Council, supra note 12, at 1-2.

[18] Id. at 3.

[19] See, e.g., Carmen George, Deported Marine Veteran Came Home the Only Way He Could – in a Casket, Military.com (Apr. 23, 2018), https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/04/23/deported-marine-veteran-came-home-only-way-he-could-casket.html.

[20] See Burial Benefits, Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, https://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/claims-special-burial.asp, (last visited May 11, 2018).

[21] Bardis Vakili, et al., ACLU of California, Discharged, then Discarded: How U.S. Veterans are Banished by the Country They Swore to Protect 23 (July 2016).

[22] See, e.g., Andy Romey, From Service to Citizenship, The Am. Legion (Oct. 1, 2015), https://www.legion.org/citizenship/230107/service-citizenship.

[23] Vakili, supra note 21, at 19.

[24] See, e.g., Kevin Sullivan, Deported Veterans: Banished for Committing Crimes after Serving in the U.S. Military, Wash. Post (Aug. 12, 2013), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/deported-veterans-banished-for-committing-crimes-after-serving-in-us-military/2013/08/12/44f81098-ffa9-11e2-9a3e-916de805f65d_story.html?utm_term=.2911cac34ac2.

[25] See id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.; Roxana Popsecu, They Served in the U.S. Military and Hoped for Citizenship. They Got Deported, Chicago Tribune (June 4, 2017, 5:04 PM), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-deported-vets-20170604-story.html.

[28] H.R. 2346, 115th Cong. (2017).

[29] See Sullivan, supra note 24.

[30] H.R. 1470, 115th Cong. (2017).

[31] Id.

[32] See Popsecu, supra note 27.

[33] Vakili, supra note 21, at 16.

[34] Id.

[35] Jennifer Bronson, et al., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Veterans in Prison and Jail, 2011-2012 1 (Dec. 2015).

[36] Id. Sixty-four percent of veterans had been convicted of violent offenses, compared to 48 percent of non-veterans.

[37] Vakili, supra note 21, at 14.