“Legal permanent residents are allowed to serve in our military, and systemic failures across many levels of our government have led to an unknown number of noncitizen veterans to be deported from the country they risked their lives to defend,” legislators said. “Many deported veterans believed their service automatically conferred citizenship upon them, and often times, the military does not provide immigrant recruits clear information or guidance on the naturalization process. Because of this failure to disseminate information and gaps in the law, many veterans have been deported to a country they do not call home.”
Some veterans, like Hector Barajas-Varela, have been targeted for deportation after serving their sentences resulting from convictions following their service. “Supporters of deported veterans’ rights say former soldiers who face difficulties adjusting to civilian life, including substance abuse or other mental health or physical issues, should receive treatment instead of deportation orders,” NBC News reported in 2018. Barajas-Varela, who founded the Deported Veterans Support House in Mexico, won his fight to return to the U.S. and is now an American citizen.
“The legislative effort would specifically direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create a program and application process to allow eligible deported veterans residing outside of the United States to return to the country as noncitizens lawfully admitted for permanent residence,” legislators continued. “The package also calls for the Department of Defense (DOD) and DHS to jointly establish a program to ensure members of the Armed Services and their spouses and children have a pathway to citizenship.”
President Joe Biden’s rollback of the previous administration’s immigration policies includes a review of that administration’s deportation of U.S. military service members and family members. Under this new legislation, “the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security would be mandated to conduct a joint study and report on all of the veterans that have been deported in the past two decades.” Legislators note the 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “has not been tracking the number of veterans who have been deported, or been adhering to internal policies regarding potentially removable veterans.”
“When ICE agents and officers learn they have encountered a potentially removable veteran, ICE policies require them to take additional steps to proceed with the case,” that report said. However, “GAO found that ICE did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans who were placed in removal proceedings from fiscal years 2013 through 2018.”
“Too many immigrant veterans proudly served our country overseas and were callously deported,” Rep. Grijalva said. “Despite their willingness to defend our values in our armed forces, and after serving time for their infraction, our broken immigration system failed them. We owe it to them to fix this injustice. I’m proud to support this legislation that will prevent these deportations from happening and bring deported veterans back to the home they served.”
Rep. Vargas said, “[o]ur country must reform our immigration system to ensure that eligible servicemembers have a clear path to citizenship. These brave service members were willing to put their lives on the line for our country. We cannot turn our backs on the same individuals that fought to defend our freedoms.”