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Opinion: Thousands of Veterans Have Been Deported. It’s Time to Bring Them Home.

07/30/21

 

OP-ED by Chair Nathan Fletcher, San Diego County Supervisor (District Four)

President Joe Biden’s announcement that his administration will work to not only support but work to bring home our deported veterans is the right thing to do. It is long overdue.

He’s following through on his promise to correct the dishonorable immigration practice of deporting veterans of the United States Armed Forces. There are thousands of them.

They were willing to die for their adopted country, but held to a double standard because they are immigrants.

They were promised citizenship in return for honorable service, but fell through the cracks of a broken immigration system and deported anyway.

Now these deported veterans struggle to build new lives in foreign countries, away from their families and without access to Department of Veterans Affairs medical benefits they’ve earned or re-entry support they need.

It is shocking that these cruel and hypocritical policies exist in a nation that never misses an opportunity to praise its troops’ service and sacrifice.

Immigrant service members are eligible for citizenship after their service, but not all complete their naturalizations. Some are falsely told citizenship is automatic after enlisting. Others simply get lost in a maze of paperwork and bureaucracy.

Whatever the reason, the consequences are devastating. Brave young service members, many of them decorated combat veterans, are kicked out of the country they were willing to die for and permanently separated from their families back home. It’s shameful.

Consider the story of Hector Barajas, a combat veteran of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division deported just three years after he was honorably discharged.

Hector, like many returning veterans, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction and fell in with the wrong crowd. He was arrested for firing a gun in the air — no one was hurt — and, as he should, served a two-year prison sentence.

But because Hector never finalized the citizenship he was entitled to, he didn’t get a shot at a second chance or the counseling and treatment available to other vets. Instead, upon his release, Hector was deported to Mexico, a country he left at age 7 and barely knew.

Hector’s story isn’t unique. Hundreds of immigrant military veterans have been deported in recent years, many as a result of substance abuse struggles better addressed with treatment, not punishment, in the first place. Without action from Washington, more will follow.

President Donald Trump’s administration made things worse by eliminating programs designed to help military members get citizenship, and rarely, if ever, factoring military service into deportation decisions.

It’s hard for me as a Marine Corps combat veteran to even fathom that. Veterans are eligible for specialized support for their employment, home loans, education and more, yet a veteran’s service record means next to nothing when it comes to deportation. That’s wrong.

Beginning in 2016, I worked with deported veterans in Tijuana to shine a light on their struggle. With the leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union and pardons from then-Gov. Jerry Brown, we succeeded in bringing some deported veterans, including Hector, back home. We helped pass state legislation creating a legal aid fund to help even more deported veterans press their cases.

We showed change is possible, and others launched similar campaigns across the country. In Washington, leaders like Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, have championed their cause, though little progress was possible under Trump.

I’ll never forget the moment when I told Hector his deportation nightmare was over. This tough Army paratrooper let loose tears like I’ve never seen. That’s true love of country — a deported immigrant veteran crying joyfully that he could return to a nation that banished him.

Federal action is necessary. Fighting one case at a time is long, costly and leaves too many deported veterans behind. And anyways, why should decorated veterans be forced to plead their case against deportation? They served our country and earned their citizenship fully.

President Joe Biden has shown he is committed to stopping this injustice. No veteran should ever be deported.

And both the Biden administration and Congress should insist that any immigration bill includes a pathway home to honorably discharged members of the United States Armed Forces.

We cannot allow America’s deported veterans to be left behind any longer.

They fulfilled their duty to us. It’s time we fulfill our duty to them. ARTICLE LINK