While the plight of illegal immigrants is widely recognized among American citizens, that of deported US army veterans is lesser known. Currently, veterans who are legal permanent residents can be deported despite their past service. In an attempt to address this relatively hidden but pervasive issue, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois has proposed a series of three bills that would prohibit the deportation of and provide benefits for immigrant veterans. The Gate reached out to Hector Barajas, the founder of Deported Veterans’ Support House, a nonprofit organization that provides numerous services to deported veterans in order to gain insight into the perspectives and stories of deported veterans who would be impacted by Duckworth’s bills.
Miguel Perez Jr. had lived in Chicago since he was eight as a legal permanent resident and served two tours in Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom. After returning home from his service, he was diagnosed with PTSD. However, he did not receive proper Veterans Affair care, and to cope he turned to self-medicating with drugs. This led to his conviction in 2008 after he was caught handing a cocaine-filled laptop case to an undercover officer.
After fulfilling his prison term, Miguel filed a motion to stay the court deportation order, which would halt the legal proceedings, based on a medical evaluation that found that he needed treatment for PTSD and a brain injury. He also sought retroactive citizenship given his service in the military. After fighting his case for sixteen months, Miguel was deported to Mexico in March of 2018.
While Miguel was in court fighting his case, Duckworth introduced a private bill, a law that only applies to a particular individual, to help him remain in the United States and wrote a letter asking former US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson to personally review his case. Despite Duckworth’s efforts, he was deported. “It was a shameful and terrible example of what can happen when our national immigration policies are based more in hate than on logic and ICE doesn’t feel accountable to anyone,” Duckworth told the Gate over email.
Hector’s Story and the Creation of the Support House
Hector Barajas had lived in the United States since he was seven as a legal permanent resident and served in the US military for six years. Only a few months after being honorably discharged, Hector was arrested for shooting a gun from his vehicle. He was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while on parole in Bakersfield, California after spending three years in prison, and he was deported to Mexico in 2004.
“It’s not like I think, ‘Oh I hate America,’” he said over the phone. “There are days when you get pissed off, but you’re depressed all the time because you’re not with your family, maybe your economic situation. You’re going through all these different emotions and things, anger, guilt. [You think,] ‘Hey, I fucked up, look where I’m at, I left my kids.’”
Thirteen years after being deported, Hector received a pardon from Jerry Brown, then governor of California. He was able to gain citizenship in 2017, using the precedent set by a similar case in which the courts favored the veteran. However, given that many other immigrant veterans were not as lucky, Hector decided to do something to help as many as he could.
Around 2009, Hector began to reach out to other deported veterans living in Mexico and established the Deported Veterans’ Support House, also known as the “The Bunker,” in Tijuana, Mexico. Support House provides many services to deported veterans, including job placement, emergency care, counseling therapy, funeral services, and retrieval of documents like military records, medical records, medals, and awards. The house is currently running on a grant from a committee for honorary discharge veterans that Hector is a part of, but once the money from the grant runs out they will be “pretty much on survival mode,” according to Hector, and will have to rely on individual donations. “The Bunker” has directly supported over thirty men and has indirectly helped hundreds of deported veterans living in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Costa Rica.
While Hector has specifically identified over four hundred US army veterans who have been deported, he estimates that there are thousands. “This [deportation of army veterans] has been happening since 1996. There’s no way to actually tell. It could be three thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand. But definitely thousands.”
The scale and frequency of deportations of US veterans may come as a shock to many Americans. For Duckworth, a US Army veteran herself, this issue represents a major flaw in the US immigration system. “Men and women willing to wear our uniform shouldn’t be deported by the same nation they risked their lives to defend,” she states on her website.
The Bill Package
In August of 2017, Duckworth crafted a package of three bills that would prohibit the deportation of veterans who aren’t violent offenders. The package included the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, the Healthcare Opportunities for Patriots in Exile (HOPE) Act, and the Immigrant Veterans Eligibility Tracking System (I-VETS) Act. She picked the one-year anniversary of Miguel’s deportation to reintroduce these three bills in 2019, an attempt to “raise awareness to his situation, and the reality for many other Veterans,” Duckworth said in her email.
The Veterans Visa and Protection Act would require the Department of Homeland Security to permit deported noncitizen veterans to return to the United States as permanent residents through a visa program. “They [the veterans] would then follow the standard naturalization application process through DHS to obtain citizenship,” Duckworth told the Gate. The HOPE Act is designed specifically for veterans with service-connected medical conditions and would allow temporary return to the United States for medical care from Veterans Affairs’ facilities. The I-VETS Act would expedite the naturalization application process for non-citizen veterans and service members. Only those veterans who have not been convicted of a violent crime would be eligible to receive the benefits of Duckworth’s bills.
The bill package has received support from numerous members of Congress, including New York Senator and presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, who said that it is “absolutely abhorrent that this administration is deporting brave men and women who were willing to sacrifice their lives for this country.” However, the bill has substantial obstacles to overcome. Duckworth informed the Gate, “The Trump Administration’s actions regarding immigrant veterans thus far haven’t suggested it will be easy . . . To overcome that, we need help from the public to encourage more members of the Senate to mobilize around these important issues, especially Republican.”
Hector’s Message for Congress
Hector is very thankful that people like Duckworth and others are finally starting to advocate for deported veterans. He believes that the US government needs to “make sure there’s a program in place when [immigrant veterans] are in the military so that the process start[s earlier], so that they’re educated, so that they know citizenship is an option.”
“When these men and women take off their uniforms, they should still be a commitment, regardless of their situation, whether they’re in trouble or homeless. They shouldn’t be discarded because they’re going through legal issues,” Barajas said. “Obviously if you get in trouble and you [deserve] to go to prison, go to prison and serve your time, but [the US government shouldn’t] discard them. They should continue to take care of them.”
The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The original was taken by COD Newsroom and can be found here.