LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND? The Deportation Of U.S. Veterans, And Their Fight To Come Home

Deported veterans are entitled to a burial at national cemeteries. Some make it back, just in caskets.

The deportation of veterans, at first glance, seems so implausible that there’s a Snopes fact-check article about whether the United States actually does it.

The short answer is yes, it does.

The long answer is that it’s complicated. Nobody can say exactly how many veterans have been deported — not even the government, it would seem. And nobody seems to know the number of countries to which U.S. veterans have been deported.

Veterans who have been deported have committed some kind of crime. Often they are sentenced to prison, only to be deported after they serve their time.

Miguel Gabriel Vazquez, a deported Vietnam vet living in Tijuana who serves as a PTSD counselor to his “brothers” for free, told Oxygen.com: “People that were citizens did the same thing, got out, and they went home to their families, but these guys were punished twice… They pushed them across the border with shirt on their back.”

The ACLU estimates that as many as 230 veterans may have been deported in 2016 alone — and perhaps thousands of foreign-born veterans in total, especially since the disastrous 1996 Clinton legislation that punished immigrants charged with nonviolent and less serious offenses with mandatory detention and fast-track deportation.

The deportation of veterans is sometimes colloquially referred to as a “life sentence” — a macabre joke, because veterans are entitled to a burial at national cemeteries. Some make it back, just in caskets.

In this video feature, we looked at the story of Miguel Angel Perez-Montes, or Miguel Perez Jr., a veteran who was deported on March 23 after a years-long battle to stay in the U.S.

“I was given birth in Guadalajara, but life in Chicago.”

“The United States trained me to never give up,” says Miguel Perez, 39, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

He had come to the United States at age 3, becoming a legal resident at age 11. Around ten years later, he enlisted shortly before 9/11. He was discharged in 2004.

Miguel lives in Tijuana, Mexico now, not out of choice: he was deported after serving time for drug possession. He was left there, with no money, in an orange jumpsuit, his lawyer told NBC.

His deportation separated him from his entire family, including his two children, who were both born in the U.S. and are citizens.

Caught in a sting operation with reportedly “more than two pounds of cocaine” in November 2008, Miguel pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years. He served about half of his time before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took him into custody.

Miguel points to his undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as the root of his substance abuse problems after discharge.

His situation is not unique.

The VA estimates that one-fifth of veterans with PTSD struggle with at least one substance abuse problem. In 2004, according to the Department of Justice, 10% of incarcerated people reported prior military service (though this number has steadily declined).

A 2014 study found that Iraq and Afghanistan vets who suffered from PTSD and alcohol abuse were almost seven times as likely to engage in “severe violence” than vets without those problems.

Miguel is one of many veterans who have found support and community at the Unified U.S. Veterans Resource Center in Tijuana, co-directed by Robert Vivar.

Miguel met Robert at the aptly-named Friendship Park and met Hector at a press conference, shortly after arriving in Tijuana.

Friendship Park is the site of a mural dedicated to deported veterans, painted by disabled Navy veteran Amos Gregory in 2013. The mural, painted on the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, features a distressed U.S. flag — upside down, featuring crosses instead of stars in memory of those who died trying to cross the border — and happens to exist on U.S. property, though technically in Mexico.

Border Patrol reportedly considered  taking it down as recently as April of this year, but has yet to make an official decision — so deported veterans engaged in their yearly repainting of the mural. The veterans in Mexico have found refuge with one another.

“There’s a house, there’s a door,” said Miguel. “You’re welcomed in.”

Repatriating Patriots

Hector Barajas-Varela made national headlines after recently becoming the first deported veteran to be pardoned and naturalized.

Hector, who had a green card, joined the Army and served on the 82nd Airborne Division from 1995 to 2001. After struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, he fired a gun and pleaded no contest in 2002 to shooting an unoccupied vehicle. According to the ACLU, Hector served two years in prison, and one in detainment -- and then was deported. The ACLU notes that Hector tried to re-enter the U.S. after having difficulty finding work in Mexico, and was deported again in 2010 after a traffic stop.

Hector created the Deported Veterans Support House—known as “the Bunker”—in 2013, which has since supported at least 20 veterans in the same situation: they lost their right to live in the United States on account of criminal charges. After 14 years in jeopardy, he returned home this year and was naturalized in April.

“I’m thrilled because it’s a possibility,” said Miguel of Hector. But he likened Hector’s re-entry into American life to people going home from prison — because prison, after six years of hard time, “is all I can compare things to.”

“There was people going home after doing 20 years. There was people going home after doing one year six months. So you wish them well, and you’re very happy for every single one of them, and you wish they don’t come back,” he said. “But I cannot lose sight that I’m going to be imprisoned for a while.”

Hector was pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown, and Miguel very recently was not granted clemency by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, for a retroactive application for citizenship.

The deportation of veterans may seem antithetical to what people believe about the American military, with the depiction of “no man left behind” being especially vivid in movies about war.

“Mike Durant, we won’t leave you behind,” said Miguel in his interview with Oxygen.com, referencing “Black Hawk Down.”

“They made a movie about his experiences in Somalia. Leave no man behind. The Marines, the Army, the Navy, everything — we leave nobody behind.”

But veterans, in the liminal space of deportation to an effectively foreign country with no veteran benefits, may feel the ultimate sense of being “left behind.” The assault on their well-being is palpable.

Why Are Veterans Deported?

“We do not know how many veterans are deported every year, but we know thousands have been,” said Robert Vivar, co-director of U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center. “Deportations haven’t amped up yet, but we expect them to.” Vivar notes that veterans have been deported for many years, seeing an increase in 1996 with the Clinton legislation.

“Citizenship was never mentioned,” said Hector of the Army’s naturalization process — a process that some immigrants in service assume to be automatic. “I was never counseled, there’s no program for it.”

Miguel says he didn’t know either.

Naturalization is not an automatic process — but Miguel thought being sworn in was the same thing. And it once used to be part of basic training.

Around 80,000 immigrants enlisted in the armed forces between 1999 and 2010, the National Immigration Forum reports,  and about half a million (or 3%) of the veteran population was  foreign-born in 2016.

These numbers indicate that nationality or origin does not appear to be a deciding factor for the American standard measure of patriotism: the willingness to commit your life.

Miguel, who was given a general discharge from the army after a “drug infraction,” alleges that his PTSD in Afghanistan led to both the infraction and his problems with drugs when he returned back to Chicago, the city that was once his home. Miguel’s PTSD was diagnosed in 2011 by the VA, when he was in prison, but he is now unable to avail of VA benefits.

In prison, Miguel completed an Associate’s Degree, sought available psychiatric treatment, and worked as a teacher’s assistant for computer classes, according to his lawyer.

ICE says that the removal of veterans requires senior leadership authorization and an evaluation by chief counsel; but to many, the real issue is that these veterans have served their country and paid penance by serving their time behind bars — only to be kicked out.

Deported veterans are entitled to VA benefits if they were discharged honorably — but there are no satellite offices for the VA in other countries.

Skeptics abound in response to the media attention surrounding Miguel’s efforts to return home. They point out as a permanent resident in the United States for many years before enlisting in the army, Miguel was already eligible to apply for citizenship.

“If deportees didn’t apply for U.S. citizenship while in the military, that was their choice,” said Jeff Schwilk, founder of San Diegans for Secure Borders and retired Marine to the Washington Post. Schwilk doesn’t sympathize with bringing back non-citizen veterans who have committed crimes. “I don’t think they should be held to a lesser standard.”

Last June, the Pentagon reportedly considered a plan to cancel enlistments for 1,000 foreign-born recruits without legal immigration status. These service members were recruited in a program “designed to award fast-tracked citizenship in exchange for urgently needed medical and language skills,” reports the Washington Post. And 4,000 more, a majority of whom are naturalized citizens, may face “enhanced screening.” In September, the Post reported that the U.S. Army killed the contracts of hundreds of immigrant recruits.

In short, the status of immigrants serving is getting more tenuous.

A Movement Afoot

Several politicians have stepped up to defend the rights of these veterans, including Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois. Duckworth has stood up for Miguel repeatedly: she’s written letters to a judge, the Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the ICE Chicago Field Office Director and Governor Bruce Rauner over the course of Miguel’s battle to stay home.

 In August 2017, she introduced a package of four comprehensive bills to stop deportation of veterans, give permanent residents a clear pathway to citizenship through service, establish naturalization offices at military training facilities and bolster VA healthcare.

In February 2018, Senator Duckworth introduced a private bill specifically for Miguel.

“As a Veteran and former VA Assistant Secretary, I have seen firsthand the harmful impacts that PTSD can have on the daily lives of veterans when left undiagnosed or without adequate care,” wrote Senator Duckworth in the release announcing her bill.

Miguel, Senator Duckworth acknowledges, was self-medicating his PTSD with drugs and alcohol after his 2004 discharge. “This should never have happened in the first place.”

She tried to intervene by directly appealing to the Department of Homeland Security on the day of his deportation.

Senator Duckworth isn’t the only one fighting in this complex interaction of immigration — an issue that major parties butt heads on — and veteran rights, a squarely bipartisan issue.

Representative Mark Takano, who is the Vice Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the first openly gay person of color to be elected to Congress, traveled along with four other members of congress to Tijuana in October 2017 to talk with the Deported Veterans Support House. Takano, a Democrat from California, has published his memos on the issue, where he cites advocates who estimate the number of deported veterans to be around 3,000. The memos also mention a VA telehealth plan that would offer a solution to the current vacuum of medical care in Mexico and other countries.

In June 2017, Representative Juan Vargas, a California Democrat, re-introduced bills to ensure that all veterans were “taken care of” -- even deported ones. One bill is specifically to promote tracking of non-citizens, both active and retired, to help fast-track their citizenship process.

“I fought in Iraq, and I know that on the battlefield what matters isn’t whether you have the right papers, it’s whether you have the right skills and the right character. Deportation is no way to thank the men and women who sacrificed so much to serve our country,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona, while introducing legislation that would reunite deported veterans to their families and prevent future deportations.

The bill, reintroduced as the Restoring Respect for Immigrant Service in Uniform Act, was co-sponsored by Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California and Democratic Representatives Charles Rangel and Jose E. Serrano of New York

In October 2017, the communications director for Representative Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee and the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the committee had “no plans to take up any legislation related to benefits for deported veterans.”

In March 2017, Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced a bill that would permit deported veterans back into the country, allow eligible veterans to adjust their visa status, and cancel the removal of more veterans. It has 63 sponsors, and has been referred to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

As multiple legislative efforts gather momentum and media attention on the removal of non-citizen veterans increases, it seems likely that change is in the future.

But it’s difficult to say what, or when.

The question is if we, as a society, believe that it’s acceptable to punish the criminal behavior of those who have served with exile — to a life elsewhere, without their families, and where they can only come home after death.

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