Rep. Gallego: Deported veterans served their country but they can't come home
Legislation proposed to help some of the hundreds of soldiers convicted of crimes to return to this country
Sometimes, the only way a deported military veteran can get back into the United States is in a casket.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said these former soldiers, often convicted of crimes related to their service, are stripped of all their military benefits, except one: the right to be buried in a U.S. veterans cemetery.
He and other Democratic members of Congress are trying to change that for some deported vets.
Gallego introduced a bill Wednesday that asks the Department of Homeland Security to set up a process that would allow deported veterans who have not been convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors to apply to return to the U.S. The legislation also would protect veterans not convicted of serious crimes from being deported in the future.
"These men and women who served our country, sacrificed time, sweat and blood for our country are told don’t come back until you are dead," said Gallego, an Iraq War veteran. "That is something we just cannot allow to happen."
He said that often, deported vets were convicted of crimes related to post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of combat.
He feels they're being unfairly double punished because they already served jail or prison sentences for their crimes.
But Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, sees little reason for the bill because the number of veterans who get deported is very small and those who are typically have been convicted of serious crimes.
"This seems very much like a boutique issue that is not at the heart of the concerns of the American people, " he said.
Applause for the bill
Immigrant advocates, however, applauded the bill. They say it draws attention to an issue that has largely gone unnoticed by the public.
"As it stands now, we see people who have put their lives on the line and who have gone to war for the United States, who for all intents and purposes should be U.S. citizens," said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles.
"Then they get swept up in the immigration system and there is no discretion available to them and they get deported and usually it’s for crimes that most people think are not very serious."
The majority of veterans who get deported are legal residents who have been convicted of crimes considered "aggravated felonies," a broad category that can include non-violent misdemeanor drug offenses, she said.
Still, Pasquarella and other immigrant advocates say Gallego's bill would not likely have much impact if it was passed.
That's because deported vets convicted of "aggravated felonies" are excluded under Gallego's bill.
"I'm glad to see an effort made, but I'm not sure this bill would do much," said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer in Anchorage and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.
Pasquarella would like to see a moratorium on deporting immigrants who served in the military. She also said all legal immigrants who serve should be granted citizenship before they are discharged. Currently, citizenship is fast-tracked for legal immigrants serving in the military, but only if they apply.
No official statistics
There are no official statistics on the number of veterans who have been deported. The Department of Homeland Security doesn't specifically track that data, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
But Hector Barajas believes at least a thousand veterans, and perhaps several thousand, have been deported since 1996.
He runs the Deported Veterans Support House, a shelter for deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico. There are about 50 deported veterans living in Tijuana, south of San Diego, he said.
He has been contacted by veterans who have been deported to at least 25 countries. The majority have been deported to Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, he said.
Most of the deported veterans were legal residents, but a few were undocumented immigrants who used fake documents to join the military.
In January, NPR profiled Daniel Torres, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who grew up in Idaho. He used a fake birth certificate to join the Marines and fought in Iraq. He was discharged after the military discovered he wasn't in the country legally, and Torres was unable to return to the U.S. after going to Tijuana.
Pasquarella, the ACLU attorney, said Torres was given a visa to return to the U.S. so that he could attend a hearing on Thursday to determine if he qualifies for citizenship because of his military service.
Gallego's bill is co-sponsored by three other Democrats: U.S. Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Charles Rangel and José E. Serrano of New York.
Gallego said he was prompted to draft the bill after talking to deported veterans in Tijuana via Skype during a meeting organized by student veterans at Arizona State University.
"Many of these young men and women, they are getting in trouble because of their service," Gallego said. "They are coming back with (PTSD). They are self-medicating themselves with drugs or alcohol ... and then find themselves in trouble with the law and then are getting deported because of that."