TIJUANA, MEXICO — Rep. Juan Vargas, a California Democrat whose district runs the length of the state’s border with Mexico, introduced a set of bills last fall aimed at helping U.S. military veterans who were deported after they were convicted of crimes. The bills stalled, casualties of what he called bad timing during the presidential campaign.
Vargas reintroduced the bills last week, because now he sees “a real opportunity.” He and six other Democratic members of Congress spent Saturday in this Mexican border town visiting deported veterans to press the issue, thinking that President Trump might be receptive to the argument that they are veterans first and deportees second.
These veterans, who agreed to serve in the U.S. military in exchange for a chance at U.S. citizenship, sit at the intersection of an issue with broad bipartisan interest — the treatment of those who fought for the nation — and immigration, an issue that resonates with the Democratic base.
“Hopefully someone in the administration, this time, will say, ‘We’re doing such a horrible job. The world hates us now. This is something we can do that’s positive,” Vargas said in an interview, noting that the administration has been mired in bad news and that the previous White House failed to take up the issue. “It’s a good opportunity for them to do something unambiguously positive: to help veterans.”
Vargas and his delegation brought their message Saturday to the Deported Veterans Support House in northern Tijuana. Here, they met with veterans who served but then had problems before they obtained full citizenship, finding themselves ejected from the United States after running afoul of the law.
Hector Barajas, who is leading an effort to get his peers back into the United States, made his case in front of the delegation and reporters. Barajas was deported after a crime — he fired a gun. He was honorably discharged from the Army, and after serving a prison sentence he was sent back to Mexico. He mistakenly thought he’d be given citizenship automatically after his service. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently pardoned Barajas.
Barajas shared a pledge Saturday that the members of Congress signed, which read in part: “We believe that anyone who is willing to join the U.S. military, fight and give their life for the U.S., should be a citizen and not subject to deportation from the country they serve.”
Edwin Salgado came to the United States when his parents brought him over the border when he was 3. He later served in Kuwait, joining the Marines at 18 because he “felt it was something I had to do for my country.”
He was sent back to Mexico after a conviction on drug and weapons charges. He spent a year in prison.
Salgado said he didn’t realize veterans could be deported and he hopes the laws will change. “I’m allowed to go back when I die,” he said in an interview prior to the event. “One way or another, I’ll find my way back there.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said that is something that struck him, too: Deported veterans get military burials but are kept out of the country while they’re alive. HR 1470, which he introduced in March, aims to prevent the deportation of veterans who commit non-serious crimes. It has 51 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
Grijalva said the national discussion about immigration might work out in the bill’s favor. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said he thinks the issue has broad support.
“The terrain is tough in Congress right now,” Castro said. “Most people, regardless of their political affiliation, are very surprised and concerned to hear that veterans have been deported, even though they put their lives on the line for the United States.”
Among the other bills that have been introduced or reintroduced since March, one would let deported veterans temporarily return to the United States for health care and another would ensure that noncitizen service members receive instruction about naturalization.
Letting noncitizen veterans who engage in criminal activity, whether violent or nonviolent, stay in the United States doesn’t sit well with Jeff Schwilk, founder of San Diegans for Secure Borders and a retired Marine. Schwilk said the military has long had a fast-track citizenship program for foreign national service members.
“If deportees didn’t apply for U.S. citizenship while in the military, that was their choice,” he said. “I don’t think they should be held to a lesser standard. When we’re in the military, we’re held to a higher standard. Crimes that are not crimes in civilian life are crimes in the military, and we all know that, from the day we are sworn in as soldiers or Marines or airmen.”
That might be one of the effort’s biggest hurdles, trying to draw sympathy for people who committed crimes. Their numbers are difficult to estimate — advocates say it ranges from several hundred to several thousand — but they represent a tiny fraction of the foreigners who have served in the U.S. military.
But Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) said the issue often receives the wrong emphasis: “This is not an immigration issue,” he said. “This is a veterans’ issue.”
He met with White House officials several weeks ago and wrote a letter to Trump, urging him to sign an executive order to stop veteran deportations.
Gonzalez was encouraged by something Trump said about deported veterans during the campaign: “I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a special situation, and I could see myself working that out,” Trump said then. “Absolutely.”