Hector Barajas joined the 82nd Airborne in 1995, he served as a paratrooper, jumping out of planes dozens of times and taking on various missions on behalf of his country. But in 2004, after being honorably discharged, the United States put him on a flight that led to his biggest battle: being deported to Mexico, a country he left before his fourth birthday.
Barajas, who had a green card, returned to California after his discharge. A month later he began having trouble with the law. He pled guilty to firing a weapon at a car that his friend believed was following them. No one was wounded and Barajas maintains he didn’t pull the trigger.
Had Barajas been a U.S. citizen, he would have served three years in a state prison and that would have been the end of it. But because he wasn’t, he was deported to Mexico a year later. He was doubly punished, and he’s not the only vet susceptible to that treatment.
About 35,000 non-citizens currently serve in the U.S. military and approximately 5,000 permanent resident aliens enlist each year.
“When you go to combat they don’t separate people as permanent residents, we’re all soldiers,” Barajas told Fusion.
That’s been the case since the Revolutionary War, when non-U.S. citizens were first eligible to enlist in the military. They have fought in the War of 1812, the Civil War, both World Wars and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq.
But when non-citizens come back they’re not treated like their U.S.-born counterparts.
For example, multiple studies have found that soldiers who have seen combat face particular risk with substance abuse issues and are more likely to commit crimes compared to civilians.
When non-U.S. citizens with substance abuse issues have interactions with the criminal justice system and get deported they lose access to such VA benefits. They are essentially left without any resource to address the issues that led to their behavior.
According to calculations from Banished Veterans, a group Barajas leads, the number of deported veterans is in the tens of thousands and includes veterans from Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Barajas personally knows of 103 deported veterans and believes there could be as many as 30,000.
Louis Alvarez, a retired Marine who successfully fought his own deportation order and today remains in the U.S., believes there are at least 3,000 veterans in immigration detention center or in deportation proceedings at any given time.
"We did some research based on where I was detained in the El Centro Detention Center and how many veterans were detained at other locations and we multiplied that by the number of detention centers,” Alvarez explained. Alvarez is now a paralegal and is also a leader with Banished Veterans.
Alvarez knows his numbers may not be accurate but he has little else to go by.
"We tried to get the exact numbers and filed a Freedom for Information Act requests but every time we do the Department of Homeland security denies the requests citing national security," Alvarez told Fusion.
The Department of Homeland security denied Fusion’s requests to confirm the number of deported veterans.
“Current and historical statistics on veteran removals are not readily available,” said Virginia Kice, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson.
ICE also told Fusion they do take military service into consideration when considering removals.
“ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate. Former ICE Director Morton's June 2011 memo [PDF] on prosecutorial discretion specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised,” Kice said in a statement.
But immigration law experts like Margaret Stock, an attorney and expert in immigration and citizenship law, are wary of the ICE claim.
“A lot of these [veterans] could stop their deportation by applying for citizenship but they don’t know they’re eligible to apply,” Stock said. “The government hasn’t done a good job at informing veterans.”
Normally a person with a green card has to wait five years to apply for citizenship, but there are exceptions for military personnel.
In 2009 the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) established the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative to give noncitizen enlistees the opportunity to apply for citizenship after they graduate from basic training. Last year the USCIS naturalized 5,563 service members.
Many of the veterans that Fusion interviewed were deported for misdemeanors involving drug use.
That’s because in 1996, Congress redefined the term aggravated felony in immigration code to include a swath of misdemeanors offenses. The problem with the blanket term “aggravated felony” is that it covers more than thirty types of offenses; drug possession, filing a false tax return and murder and rape all fall in the same category.
Some “aggravated felony” cases that resulted in deportations include “misdemeanor theft of items of minimal value such as a $10 video game, $15 worth of baby clothes” and “pointing out a suspected drug seller to a potential buyer,” according to a report from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. [PDF]
Because deportation removals are civil proceedings, defendants don’t have a right to a free attorney. And many of the deportees don’t have access or the funds to hire an immigration lawyer.
“The government has a lawyer and the government lawyers don’t often tell people about benefits that are available to them because the government lawyers job is to deport,” said Stock, who was recently named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow for her work on this issue, which includes people like Barajas.
The 1996 regulations that former president Bill Clinton signed in to law works retroactively, too. Today we’re deporting Vietnam veterans for crimes they committed a decade ago. Stock added that deporting highly trained veterans is cruel, but it’s also not smart.
“It doesn’t make sense to deport somebody with military training into a country where they may be coerced into working for a bad organization that doesn’t have America’s best interest at heart,” Stock said.
In the End
The irony is that deported veterans who were honorably discharged can return to the U.S. when they’re dead. The vets are still entitled to burial at a U.S. military cemetery with an engraved headstone and their casket draped with an American flag, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Why wait until the day I die to be buried as an American,” Barajas said.