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Deported Veterans Ask Biden To Bring Them Home

Mario Martinez, an Army veteran, faced deportation in 2017 after serving four years in California state prison. While serving in the Army in the 1980s, he was deployed to Germany as part of U.S. forces sent to guard the Berlin Wall.
Dorian Merina / The American Homefront Project
Mario Martinez, an Army veteran, faced deportation in 2017 after serving four years in California state prison. While serving in the Army in the 1980s, he was deployed to Germany as part of U.S. forces sent to guard the Berlin Wall.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mx., have launched a campaign urging the Biden administration to bring home deported veterans — those who served in the U.S. military only to be later exiled from the country.

They came to the U.S. as children with their families and as legal permanent residents. As adults, they joined the military with the promise of a speedy path to citizenship, which never happened. After serving, they got in trouble with the law—a common occurrence for veterans coming home from war.

But because they weren’t naturalized citizens, many were deported for their crimes.

Now a group of those veterans want to return to the country they served and get medical care from the U.S. government.

“We believe we have an ally in the White House who can help bring our heroes home,” said Hector Barajas, a U.S. Army veteran who was formerly deported. “The mission or campaign is to call upon the administration to make immediate changes that do not need legislation to bring home our deported veterans.”

Barajas was born in Mexico but raised in the Los Angeles area. In 1992, he became a lawful permanent resident and enlisted in the Army a few years later. Recruiters led him to believe that honorable service in the military automatically made him a U.S. citizen, so he did not apply for naturalization. When he struggled with the law upon re-entry into civilian life in 2001, he spent two years in prison and nearly a year in detention before the U.S. government deported him to Mexico.

Barajas later founded the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mx., which provides housing, social services and legal resources for veterans who have been deported, face deportation, or have had legal issues with immigration.

He now leads a coalition of deported veterans and their supporters, many of whom appeared at a webinar event on May 6.

“Maybe there is hope that we will be reunited with our families,” said U.S. Army veteran Ivan Ocon, who was deported several years ago and joined the webinar from Juarez, Mx., where he is now living.

“I left my daughter behind. I haven't seen her for about 15 years. I mean, I would love to go home....And I would love to see her graduate. And be back to my family in the US.”

The voices of the veterans were amplified by those of politicians, academics and attorneys.

“If you die while in combat, the US government will make you a citizen automatically. But if you serve and you come home, you can still be deported,” said U.S. Representative Nanette Barragán, who represents the 44th Congressional District of California. “This is wrong. Veterans should not fall through the cracks of our immigration system.”

Discharged, Then Discarded, a 2016 report by the ACLU of California, examined the plight of deported veterans. It tracked 80 cases, and found that many veterans believed they automatically became citizens through their service. Others applied for naturalization only to have their paperwork lost.

An executive order signed by former President Donald Trump in January 2017 expanded who could be deported to include not only those with criminal records, but non-citizens who had committed a "chargeable criminal offense."

“The problem of deported veterans has accelerated in recent years,” said immigration attorney and retired Army Lt. Col. Margaret Stock. “It's been made worse by the anti-immigrant leadership at the top levels of the Department of Defense, and by leaders at the Department of Homeland Security who have been working with DoD to stop military members from filing for citizenship, to delay their applications when they file them, and to deny them with the most specious of excuses. This only results in more deported veterans.”

Stock added that the new administration could take immediate action, without legislation, to change the fate of many.

“Right now the administration can act by granting parole, by stopping the deportation of vets, by stopping the wrongful denials of military, and finally, by stopping the current practice of putting military members into deportation proceedings in the first place,” she said.

President Biden stated during his campaign that his plan regarding deported vets was to “bring them back.” The deported veterans coalition echoed that refrain.

“As part of our message today, we ask to bring exiled veterans who served back home to fulfill the campaign promise,” said Laura Riley, a law professor at the University of Southern California and board member of the Center For Law and Military Policy.

“Second, we ask that they build on that promise by reinstating and improving military naturalization services and processes through the US Department of Defense and Homeland Security, to ensure that every service member who wants to naturalize is able to attain citizenship.”

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to questions about whether it would alter military naturalization services in cooperation with the Pentagon.

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Carson Frame can be reached carson@tpr.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame