"If you are willing to give your life for your country, your country should be willing to give you citizenship"
HDDD Chairman and Marine Corps combat veteran Nathan Fletcher
It has been said, “Freedom isn’t free, but don’t worry the United States Marine Corps will pay your share.” In America, we are given so much and asked to give so little in return that it does often seem free. But there is a select group who are willing to pay the price for everyone else — those who take an oath, leave their homes and are willing to give their life for their country.
It certainly isn’t limited to the Marine Corps. It includes people like Army Specialist Hans Irizarry. He was brought to America as a child from the Dominican Republic and found a home in a country he grew up loving. His commitment to America led him to join the United States Army and serve tours in Iraq and Kuwait. Like so many veterans, after being honorably discharged, he struggled with post-traumatic stress. In 2008, he was convicted of drug possession in the state of New York. For most veterans, this would have been a red flag for help and treatment. Everyday in America, a grateful nation compassionately holds veterans accountable for their actions, but helps provide a path to recovery. The path for Spc Irizarry was paying the penalty in the criminal justice system and then being deported. He was permanently expelled from the only country he knew, and the one he took an oath and went into harm’s way to defend. He was also permanently separated from his wife and two daughters.
Sadly this story is not unique. Every year, the United States deports an unknown number of veterans. We don’t know exactly how many because that the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t record the veteran status of deportees; however, advocates including the ACLU estimate the number to be in the thousands.
This isn’t right. A bipartisan coalition of veterans, elected officials, immigrant activists and others are coming together to demand change. Immigrants, after all, have honorably served in our nation’s military since its founding. As someone who spent a decade in the United States Marine Corps, I thought all who served honorably were automatically granted citizenship. I was wrong.
When enlisting in the military, recruits do not have to be U.S. citizens. While it’s often the case that recruiters use the prospects of becoming a citizen to attract new recruits in immigrant communities, joining the military doesn’t outright guarantee citizenship, though many service members are told that it does.
This leaves many discharged veterans, without citizenship, meaning a brush with the law, even for something minor, can lead to deportation. It’s true that military service does give you higher preference in immigration proceedings however, someone has to walk a young military member through the process and help them navigate a series of often complex bureaucratic hurdles.
Furthermore, when returning home from war and starting a civilian life, veterans have other things on their minds. They’re coming back to their families, trying to find employment, and going to school to pick up new skills. Going through an expensive and lengthy citizenship process isn’t exactly the first thing on their minds, particularly when many were either told or wrongly assumed citizenship came after an honorable discharge.
So people move on. They go about living their lives in the country they swore to protect. But as we know, while many service members leave the war, the war doesn’t always leave them. They struggle and sometimes travel down a dark path. Tragically, like many other veterans, they often battle with substance abuse and alcohol-related issues, sometimes getting in trouble with the law. To be clear, all veterans should be held accountable for their actions in a court of law, or a veteran’s focused court if they are lucky enough to have one available. But these veterans find a shocking reality once they served their time in the criminal justice system — they stare down an immigration judge and the prospects of deportation.And nearly 75% of the veterans interviewed in the a report stated they had no legal representation in their deportation proceedings.
Additionally, draconian laws Congress passed in the 1990s vastly expanded the crimes that could trigger automatic deportation to now include filing a false tax return, failing to appear in court and even perjury. All crimes people should be held accountable for, but not something that should trigger deportation for those who were honorably discharged from the military.
Many of these veterans have established lives and contribute positively to the communities where they live. U.S. Navy Seaman Salomon Loayza was brought to the United States by his parents from Ecuador. After his honorable service he got married, went to college, started a small business, coached youth soccer and was a beloved member of his Virginia community for 26 years. In 2000, he was convicted of mail fraud. He paid his penalty to this county for violating its laws when he served his sentence in jail. But then he was deported. Or Ronald Cruickshank who moved here as a child from Canada. He served in combat in Vietnam. After honorable discharge, he earned a PhD in California and was living a peaceful life. Convicted of tax evasion in what was described as a controversial case, he was deported and separated from his wife, children and grandchildren.These are just a few of the heartbreaking stories told in a recent report on this topic by the ACLU.
The entire process is complicated. It’s also completely unnecessary. Anyone who is willing to fight and die for this country, regardless of their citizen status, should never be so cruelly discarded. Instead, they should be rewarded for their sacrifice by with citizenship.
Deporting veterans does an injustice to those who served us. These men and women aren’t trying to game the system. They’re genuinely so full of patriotism and have so much love for this country, that they’re willing to die defending its values. Their honor is what makes America great, and thanking them one day then kicking them out the next is wrong.
There is a special bond among those of us who served. It doesn’t matter the branch or the era, peacetime or war. It is a brotherhood of those who care enough about our country and each other that we would take an oath, make a commitment and be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
For hundreds of “Americans” that bond has been broken. They kept their end of the deal by honorably serving. Now we need to do our part. We must come together to ensure all who serve honorably are given citizenship. It’s time to stop deporting veterans and bring every veteran home.