The Struggle to Bring Deported Veterans Home

Two months before the Nevada caucus, Marine Cesar Lopez risked deportation to tell Senator Bernie Sanders his story during a campaign event. Lopez, who served in the United States military from 1993 to 1995, was deported in 2012 after a felony drug conviction and sent to Mexico, a country he hadn’t seen since he was four years old. Because of this deportation, his reentry into the US in 2013 was a felony for which he could face prison time if arrested. Lopez is not alone – his story is just one among many veterans whose service did little to prevent deportation, because of their immigration status. And in an election year where immigration issues have been a lightning rod for controversy, it’s unclear what the fate of these deported men and women who risked their lives for the United States will be.

In Arizona, Rep. Ruben Gallego and his colleagues have introduced a bill to that hopes to remedy these deportations. Inspired by a forum hosted by Latino veterans at Arizona State University, Democratic Congressman Gallego – an Iraq War Marine veteran – introduced the Restoring Respect for Immigrant Service in Uniform Act on April 20 to prevent the deportation of veterans and help some return to the US.

“It’s a social justice issue,” Rep. Gallego told Remezcla. “We should not be deporting these men and women — it’s not just Mexico, it’s all over the world actually — after they serve their country.”

Deportation of veterans could also threaten national security, he added. “Green card holders serve our military. They bring needed skills, sometimes skill sets only they carry, whether it’s language or technology,” he explained. “If they discover their country – that they’re swearing allegiance to and serving – is still going to deport them, you’re going to have harder and harder time recruiting qualified men and women.”

“Green card holders serve our military. They bring needed skills, sometimes skill sets only they carry, whether it’s language or technology.”

Joining Rep. Gallego are congressmen Ted Lieu, Charles Rangel, and Jose Serrano — all Democrats and all veterans. The bill would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to prevent the deportation of non-citizens who have served 180 days or more and haven’t committed serious misdemeanors. Similarly, it would allow deported veterans to return under the same requirements. Yet, many veterans will still not be able to return.

Related: Bernie Sanders Talks to Deported US Veteran Through Border Fence, Says He Belongs on the Other Side

Some veterans’ deportation came after committing felonies or serious misdemeanors. Despite serving their time, the government exiles them to countries they have not seen since childhood. Across the border from San Diego, one deported Army veteran started helping others like him who wound up in Mexico.

Hector Barajas’ first deportation came in 2004 after he pled guilty to discharge of a firearm. To return home, he crossed the border, resulting in a second deportation in 2009. Living in a land alien to him, having grown up in the US. for most of his life, Barajas started the organization Banished Veterans and the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, creating a community for those exiled in 2013. Speaking with Remezcla, Barajas welcomed Rep. Gallego’s bill, but highlighted its shortcomings.

Hector Barajas. Photo by Joshua Sudock/The Orange County Register
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“It doesn’t help a lot of them, but it helps a certain percentage,” he said. “But not most, because most of the men who are deported have an aggravated felony.” Barajas would rather see all deported veterans return home, even though he understands it’s unpalatable for politicians to advocate for those with criminal convictions. He believes no man should be left behind. Yet, many are.

Felix Peralta, Jr. – one of the men at The Bunker, as the Support House is called – served three years in prison for resisting arrest, and found himself deported in 2001. He received an honorable discharge from the Army and served in the reserves in the 1980s. He has not seen his children since his deportation.

Felix Peralta
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Peralta and Barajas share the hardships of many deported veterans, unable to see their families and living in a country foreign to them. They arrived in the US as undocumented children. The military offered the possibility of serving their country and gaining citizenship.

Immigration law allows the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to expedite the citizenship application of servicemen and servicewomen. Recruiters mention this when enlisting new recruits, but the military provides little guidance afterward.

“Citizenship was never brought up during the whole time I was in, and I was in for almost six years,” Barajas said. A Defense Department spokesperson told us the Pentagon works with USCIS to help noncitizens apply for citizenship, providing “naturalization packages,” and allows USCIS offices on training bases. But the Pentagon does not provide this information to enlisted men and women.

“Citizenship was never brought up during the whole time I was in, and I was in for almost six years.”

“Naturalization is a personal decision; therefore, individuals seeking to become naturalized through military service bear the responsibility of submitting the required documents/application to United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS),” the Pentagon spokesperson said.

When Barajas sought help, he didn’t know where to start. When Lopez sought help at Camp Pendleton, San Diego, the legal offices turned him away. Barajas attributes this to lack of communication down the chain of command. “There was no contract that, after certain amount of years, you need to apply for citizenship,” he told Remezcla.

Cesar Lopez, far left
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Rep. Gallego plans to fix this. Though his bill cannot help all deported veterans or those in risk of deportation, he plans to add an amendment to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to establish a process to remind enlisted men and women how to obtain their citizenship and divert resources to help them in the process.

However, the bill and amendment will not come in time for many. It will not help Lopez or Peralta. Rep. Gallego acknowledges his bill’s limitations, but hopes it will shine light on the issue. “This is our first step, not the last step,” he explained, adding that the bill could spur the president to act on the issue independently.

One group who has touted this approach is the Bernie Sanders campaign. Within their expansive immigration reform plan, the campaign will strive to help deported veterans. Cesar Vargas, National Latino Outreach Strategist for the campaign, explained that, if Sanders becomes president, he would use executive actions to help those at risk of deportation or who have been deported.

“Congressionally, it’s good and I think that’s where we are at,” he told Remezcla, speaking about Gallego’s bill. “We need a president who’s going to take a lead on executive actions and not just wait on Congress to do what they don’t do, which is actually pass laws.”

Arizona congressman Ruben Gallego and his mother, Elisa Gallego, in 2005 when he served as a Marine in Iraq in 2005.
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While acknowledging that both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Sanders agree on comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship, Vargas asserts Sanders has taken the lead. Passing executive orders and expanding humanitarian parole to cover deported veterans – regardless of the reasons for deportation – can make a difference, Vargas explained.

“The really unfair factor is that they get punished again,” Vargas added. “They are expelled from the country they call home, the country they served. It’s something fundamentally unfair to punish people twice for something they’ve already paid.”

“It’s something fundamentally unfair to punish people twice for something they’ve already paid.”

Felonies did not always lead to deportations. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act reclassified felonies as deportable by lowering the jail time prerequisite from five years to one year. President Bill Clinton signed it into law. The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Barajas, Lopez and Peralta all paid their dues, but their second punishment lingers. Arrested in 2000, Lopez pled guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, following his attorney’s advice. He received a one-year deferred sentence and paid a fine after being told it would not appear on his record. But in 2012, when returning to the country, authorities stopped him and deported him because of the arrest. Despite this, he traversed the desert and returned to be with his daughter.

“I believe in comprehensive immigration reform,” Sanders told him at that December 2015 event. “I do not believe you should be hiding. I believe that you have the right to walk the streets of this country without fear.”

The Sanders campaign’s plan to help deported veterans is one step, but it may hit snags on its way. Jennie Pasquarella, Director of Immigrants’ Rights, ACLU of California, explained that humanitarian parole only allows temporary returns and doesn’t provide legal status. Short of passing a different bill, hope lies on the executive branch.

“The administration could say they want to create something similar to the Deferred Action program that they use for undocumented youth for veterans, for example,” she explains. Legislation could also be passed to change the definition of a US national to include anyone who served in the military, allowing deported veterans to return.

“I gave my heart to America. I gave my heart to the Marines.”

According to the Defense Manpower and Data Center, in March there were approximately 20,000 Active and Reserve Service members identified as “Non US citizen or Non US nationals.” Thousands more have served in the military and gained their citizenship but many others endured a different fate. The ACLU is currently screening around 75 cases of undocumented veterans and the Deported Veterans Support House is helping people in 30 countries, veterans from the Vietnam War to our current conflicts.

Rep. Gallego’s bill is undergoing review in the House Judiciary Committee and its fate remains uncertain. Nonetheless, many veterans are certain they will return home.

“We were children who grew up in America and we are Americans,” Lopez said. “I gave my heart to America. I gave my heart to the Marines. Just because this happened, it doesn’t mean that I’m mad. I’m just disappointed, but I will always be an American. When people ask me: I’m an American.”