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Deported Veterans

Formerly deported U.S. Army Veteran Hector Barajas shows his newly acquired citizenship document while standing beside Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) at the San Diego immigration office on April 13, 2018. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

Deported Veterans Initiative Could Fulfill Biden Promise to 'Bring Them Back'

"Deported veterans are exiled from the country they were willing to die for, and their deportation prevents them from accessing the V.A. benefits they earned and that they are legally entitled to."

Brett Wilkins

Veteran and immigrant rights advocates this week applauded a Biden administration initiative acknowledging the injustice of deporting noncitizens who served in the U.S. military and seeking to return them and their relatives to the United States.

"We are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed, and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled."
—Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas

On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough announced a new initiative to identify deported veterans and "immediately conduct a review of policies and practices to ensure that all eligible current and former noncitizen service members and the immediate families of military members are able to remain in or return to the United States, remove barriers to naturalization for those eligible, and improve access to immigration services."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) "will develop a rigorous, systematic approach to review the cases of individuals whose removals failed to live up to our highest values," the announcement said. The agencies "have also committed to protecting and expanding naturalization opportunities for current and former noncitizen service members and the immediate family of military members."

In a statement, Mayorkas said that "the Department of Homeland Security recognizes the profound commitment and sacrifice that service members and their families have made to the United States of America."

"Together with our partner the Department of Veterans Affairs, we are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed, and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled," he added. "Today we are taking important steps to make that a reality."

McDonough said that "it's our responsibility to serve all veterans as well as they have served us—no matter who they are, where they are from, or the status of their citizenship. Keeping that promise means ensuring that noncitizen service members, veterans, and their families are guaranteed a place in the country they swore an oath—and in many cases fought—to defend. We at V.A. are proud to work alongside DHS to make that happen."

Advocates for deported veterans welcomed the administration's first steps toward redressing what they say is a grave injustice.

Helen Boyer, a lawyer with the pro bono group Public Counsel who has represented dozens of deported veterans seeking to return to the U.S., called the administration's announcement "exciting."

"I'm definitely optimistic and pleased," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm really grateful that the administration is taking this seriously."

However, Boyer expressed some skepticism, noting that "every time the Biden [administration] says something about deported veterans, I get a million links from my clients [and] I oftentimes don't know what to tell them because I don't know what the real concrete steps are or concrete changes."

"I'm looking forward to seeing actually what the plans are, what the shifts will be, what they mean by making this more accessible, who they mean by bringing back people who are wrongly deported," she said. "Are they talking about all veterans? I don't know."

Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants' rights and senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement that "we applaud the Biden administration's commitment to end the unconscionable deportations of America's veterans and to engage in a meaningful process to bring our banished veterans home."

"Service members and their families also make incredible sacrifices, they shouldn't have to suffer under the looming shadow of deportation while they risk their lives in defense of our nation."
—Rep. Mark Takano

"U.S. veterans should be treated with the same honor and respect regardless of their citizenship status, and should never be permanently banished from their adopted country, their families, and all that makes life worth living," Pasquarella asserted. "Too often, U.S. immigration policies have resulted in this country banishing its veterans to countries they left as small children and committing them to lives of isolation and destitution. This is not how we honor our service members."

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs who—along with Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Juan Vargas (D-Calif.)—in February introduced the Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act, also welcomed the administration's announcement.

"Deported veterans are exiled from the country they were willing to die for, and their deportation prevents them from accessing the V.A. benefits they earned and that they are legally entitled to," Takano said in a statement. "Service members and their families also make incredible sacrifices, they shouldn't have to suffer under the looming shadow of deportation while they risk their lives in defense of our nation."

"I look forward to working with President Biden and my colleagues in Congress to push for comprehensive legislative solutions to this issue, including passing the Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act," he added.

The move to return deported veterans would fulfill a campaign promise by President Joe Biden. While campaigning for president in 2019, Biden was asked about his plans for deported vets during a town hall event in Iowa. The former vice president said he would "bring them back."

It is estimated that at least hundreds and possibly thousands of U.S. military veterans have been expelled from the country since changes to the nation's immigration laws in the mid-1990s mandated deportation for certain crimes, with no judicial discretion permitted. Changes to the law in 1996 included a retroactive clause to encompass offenses committed at any time during a person's life. 

"I'm looking forward to seeing actually what the plans are, what the shifts will be, what they mean by making this more accessible, who they mean by bringing back people who are wrongly deported."
—Helen Boyer, attorney

The Deported Veterans Support House—a self-described "bunker" in Tijuana, Mexico that assists vets expelled from the United States—says it has come into contact with at least 400 veterans who have been deported, faced deportation, or have experienced legal issues with immigration. The group says all of them have "a strong desire to return to the United States."

Hector Barajas, a formerly deported veteran who was naturalized in 2018 following a pardon from then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, runs the support house. He recently told the American Homefront Project that the situation for vets like him became particularly difficult during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Although previous administrations also deported veterans, Trump "took away this policy that was in place that made it easier to become a citizen when you're in the military," said Barajas.

During the Trump administration, ICE often ignored a requirement to review the military service records of people slated for deportation. According to the Government Accountability Office, 21% of deported veterans never received a full review, and 70% were denied review by a higher office.

Furthermore, in 2019 the Trump administration sought to scale back a program known as parole-in-place that protects undocumented relatives of active-duty U.S. troops from deportation. During Trump's tenure, rejections of veterans' requests for deportation protection for spouses or other immediate family members doubled.

In a bid to draw more attention to the plight of deported veterans and to "bring about the change we are seeking," former Marine and current Brawley, California City Council member Ramon Castro recently set out on a 45-day, 1,954-mile walk along the southern U.S. border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

Castro told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired by the recent death in Mexico of Erasmo "Mito" Apodaca, a 52-year-old deported veteran who had been fighting to return to the U.S. for 22 years.

"He suffered from PTSD and needed physical and mental health treatment, and he wasn't able to receive it in Mexico," said Castro. "If he had been helped sooner, and if he had access to V.A. medical care, he might still be around."

Castro said that deported veterans "should all be pardoned because, if not for this failed system, they would be American citizens, and we would not be talking about it. It's a real embarrassment... that we just discard them in that manner."


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