Discharged then Discarded
A report by the ACLU
Foreign-born soldiers have served the United States since the founding of the Republic. Their dedication to the military and to the country they love – indeed, for soldiers who came here as young children, the only country they’ve known – matches and often surpasses the commitment of the native-born. Yet for some, honorable service has been rewarded with dishonorable actions on the part of a system they swore to defend and protect.
They are members of what is, unfortunately, a growing brotherhood – veterans of the United States armed forces who have been unceremoniously deported. Many are combat veterans who sustained physical wounds and emotional trauma in conflicts going back to the war in Vietnam. Many have been decorated for their service. But service records notwithstanding, the U.S. has seen fit to kick them out of the country, sometimes for minor offenses that resulted in little if any incarceration.
What’s worse, their military service entitled these men to naturalization. (Thus far, all of the deported soldiers we’ve identified are male, but we do not assume that there are no examples of deported female veterans.) Many believed they became citizens by nature of their service and oath –some were told as much by their recruiters – and were never told otherwise. All of these men should be U.S. citizens today, at home with their loved ones, but they languish in unfamiliar and often dangerous foreign places, unable in many cases to speak the native language, because of bureaucratic bungling and government indifference.
Our report, Honorably Discharged, Disgracefully Discarded, documents the cases of 84 veterans who have been forced out of the country or are still in the U.S. but facing deportation.
The vast majority of these men had been in the United States lawfully for decades and long ago lost any ties to the nations in which they were born. They were swept up in a backlash against immigrants that started in earnest 20 years ago with the passage of Draconian laws that eliminated judicial discretion and reclassified many low-level offenses as “aggravated felonies” mandating deportation. In many cases, these were minor drug offenses committed by veterans who succumbed to the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life and paid their debt to society. Had they been naturalized, as they should have been after being honorably discharged, they would not have been forced to settle a second debt – lifetime banishment from the United States.
In addition to the humiliation and ignominy of deportation, that banishment effectively denies these men access to often critically needed medical care. Regardless of immigration status, all U.S. military veterans are entitled to treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, but few deported veterans are granted the necessary waivers to access that care either in the states or abroad. In a few tragic cases, we found examples of veterans who could have been saved but died as their friends and loved ones tried desperately to cut through mountains of red tape.
Banishment also wreaks havoc on the lives of the families left behind, who are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents themselves. Children grow up without their fathers, mothers raise families alone, and parents too old to travel cannot see their sons. Meanwhile, in some parts of the world, the deported veterans find themselves targets of recruitment efforts by cartels and gangs, and their resistance places their very lives at risk for the United States once again.
The purpose of this report is to share the trends and patterns we have identified, to offer policy solutions to end the disgraceful practice of deporting veterans, address the needs of those who have been deported, and, ultimately, to help bring our banished veterans back home to the U.S. where they can be reunited with their families.
Summary of Findings:
- Nearly all deported veterans have left behind families who have struggled with the absence of a spouse, sibling, or child. U.S.-born children who have been forced to grow up without their father at home have often suffered physical and mental health problems.
- Although all deported veterans were eligible to naturalize during their service, until recently, the federal government failed to ensure that service members were naturalized during military careers, or shortly thereafter, often failing to provide adequate resources and assistance to complete and file paperwork so that applications were expeditiously adjudicated.
- The federal government’s failure to provide clear and accurate information about naturalization resulted in many veterans believing their military service automatically made them U.S. citizens.
- The federal government lost, misplaced, or failed to file the applications of many veterans who applied for naturalization.
- Veterans who failed to become citizens during their service became subject to deportation and permanently barred from obtaining citizenship after being convicted of a crime upon return to civilian life.
- Changes to immigration laws in the 1990s that expanded the types of criminal convictions that can lead to deportation and eliminated the discretionary authority of immigration judges to consider factors like long residence, rehabilitation, family ties, and military service, made veterans who did not naturalize and then committed crimes subject to deportation and permanent banishment from the United States.
- Unlike criminal defendants, veterans facing deportation are often forced to represent themselves in deportation proceedings because they cannot afford an immigration lawyer and the government does not provide one.
- The punitive and unforgiving character of the changes Congress made to immigration laws in the 1990s has been magnified by aggressive enforcement programs such as Secure Communities that ensnared many noncitizens, including veterans who had old convictions.
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fails to exercise discretion when pursuing deportation action against veterans, despite a 2004 memo explicitly instructing the agency to do just that, and to track the numbers of veterans it puts in deportation proceedings and actually deports.
- Deportations have denied veterans the comprehensive medical care they would receive in the United States, leaving many to die or suffer without treatment.
- Due to inaction and lack of cooperation between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the State Department, no deported veteran who was not already receiving their VA disability compensation and pension before their deportation has been able to obtain those benefits after deportation, nor have they been able to obtain the VA foreign medical assistance they are due by law.
- Veterans deported to Mexico or Central America face serious threats from gangs and drug cartels that seek to recruit them because of their military training, and threaten them and their families with death if they refuse.
For full report, please visit: https://www.aclusocal.org/pr-discharged-then-discarded/