Hundreds of foreign-born veterans have been deported over the years for sometimes minor crimes because the U.S. government didn’t help them get naturalized during their military service — even though a major benefit of enlistment is supposed to be expedited citizenship, the American Civil Liberties Union of California said Wednesday.
In a new report issued from San Diego, the organization alleged that federal officials often fail to provide adequate information and resources to help qualifying military personnel become naturalized. The deficiencies have led many service members to wrongly believe their military duty automatically makes them U.S. citizens, the report said. In reality, those individuals only have a green card or some other legal status that still enables the government to deport them if they commit certain crimes.
In some cases where people have made good-faith efforts to apply for citizenship, the government has lost, misplaced or otherwise not filed their paperwork, according to the ACLU.
The group recommended a broad range of changes. For example, it called on Congress to rewrite laws so some offenses, including drug possession and sales, aren’t classified as felonies that trigger deportation. It also urged U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to use discretion in de-emphasizing deportation of affected veterans.
In the past, advocates for these veterans said even in cases of more serious crimes such as physical assault or manslaughter, the offending veterans should be allowed to stay with their families in the U.S. after they have completed their prison terms.
Once deported, veterans are stripped of most U.S. government health and pension benefits. They also are barred from returning to this country unless given a special exemption, although experts don’t know of any such veteran who has gained re-entry.
“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,” the report said.
In a statement, ICE said it respects the sacrifices of those in the military service and is deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans.
“Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel,” Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said in the statement.
“ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate, consistent with the department’s civil enforcement priorities,” she added. “ICE specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered along with other factors in the totality of the circumstances when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised.”
The agency said it’s required by law to deport all noncitizens who were convicted of aggravated felonies, as stipulated by the Immigration and Naturalization Act. It also said it doesn’t keep statistics on how many veterans have been deported.
For its new report, the ACLU interviewed 59 veterans who have been deported or are fighting deportation. Those individuals have birth ties to 22 countries, but many of them were brought to the U.S. as children and spent decades in this nation.
They lost the right to stay in the United States after being convicted of crimes ranging from petty theft and check fraud to narcotics use and violent attacks. They’re subject to the deportation process after serving their incarceration time.
ACLU officials estimate that altogether, an estimated 250 deported veterans are living in at least 34 countries. A fair number of them reside in Tijuana and other parts of northern Mexico, often with the help of the nonprofit Deported Veterans Support House, also known as “the Bunker.”
The group, which helps the deported adjust to their new surroundings, is currently working with about 25 men, said founder Hector Barajas-Varela. He collaborated extensively with the ACLU on the report.
One of the veterans assisted by the group was Enrique Salas Garcia, who was represented during an ACLU news conference Wednesday at Balboa Park by daughter Stephanie Rabara and other family members.
Rabara said she was 13 when her father was deported to Tijuana, where he has lived since. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17, going on to serve in the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore. He was honorably discharged four years later, in 1992, and remained in the reserves through 1996, according to the ACLU.
In 2001 in San Diego, Salas pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance. Three years later, he was convicted of possession of a controlled substance for sale, for which he served more than six months in jail, the ACLU said.
In 2006, Salas’ wallet was stolen during a trip to Tijuana. When he requested replacement I.D. cards at the border checkpoint, Homeland Security officials noted his 2004 conviction and took him into custody for deportation proceedings.
Rabara said she found temporary shelter in the homes of relatives and friends after her father’s deportation.
“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go. I was stuck between having to go to Tijuana to live with him and continuing my education here,” she said. “Why my dad would ever be taken from me after he served our country is mind-blowing to me.”
But Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said veterans like Salas should have taken the responsibility to verify their citizenship status — and should have known about the repercussions of certain criminal behavior.
“Just because you have served in the military doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the consequences and subsequent actions,” he said. “This is not a case of double jeopardy. You pay your debt to society for whatever offense you may have committed.”
Mehlman also said it’s up to each person — not the government — to take the steps needed to obtain U.S. citizenship.
Since 2001, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized 109,321 military personnel, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
USCIS said it’s aware of several veterans who have been deported and then applied for U.S. citizenship based on their record of military service, but declined to comment on specific cases due to privacy requirements.
“However, we can confirm that USCIS has been in communication with attorneys representing many of these individuals,” said Christensen, the Homeland Security spokeswoman.
On Friday, several deported veterans now living in Tijuana plan to jointly “turn themselves in” to U.S. authorities at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, seeking humanitarian and medical parole into the United States. The event is being staged to raise public awareness about the plight of deported vets, its organizers said. Those coordinators have been consulting with the ACLU and Deported Veterans Support House.
Meanwhile, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista, intends to propose a series of bills related to the issue.
Those measures would, among other things, provide naturalization services at military boot camps, establish an official directory of veterans who are eligible for naturalization and ensure that deported veterans receive access to health care and other resources.
Vargas has not specified when he would introduced the bills.