Welcome to Rank and File, a series that tells the stories of young veterans and the changing face of the military. Read our introduction here.
When the president invokes the “three million criminal aliens” living in America, perhaps Miguel Perez Jr., is who he’s thinking of. Perez, who was brought to the States from Mexico at the age of 8, has lived in Chicago for almost 30 years. His parents also live in Chicago. His teenaged children are U.S. citizens.
But years ago he made some bad decisions—the worst of which was probably offering a laptop case full of cocaine to an undercover police officer. Perez pleaded guilty to the felony charge and served out a seven-year sentence. But last year, as he neared his release, Perez found himself before an immigration court. In late March a judge ordered his deportation. It’s a familiar story: Perez has no family nor prospects in Mexico. His entire life is here.
What makes Perez different from many other undocumented people deported from the United States—and what’s made his case of particular interest to outlets like the Chicago Tribune and CBS, among others—is that he enlisted in the Army in 2001 and served two tours. He has a tattoo of the Statue of Liberty, another of the Special Forces insignia (“To Liberate the Oppressed”). During his second deployment in Iraq, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and upon his honorable discharge was diagnosed with PTSD.
If Perez is deported, he will join what advocates and lawyers estimate are hundreds, if not thousands, of living deported veterans—many of them booted from the country since the ‘90s, when immigration policies tightened and certain aggravated felonies became grounds for immediate removal from the country. (ICE doesn’t track the military records of those they process.)
Sometimes referred to as a “life sentence,” the practice essentially banishes veterans who have already done time for their crimes; a number only make it home when they are shipped back to the States in a casket. As the LA Times recently reported, one deported Vietnam veteran, Manuel de Jesus Castano, died in 2011 in exile after being unable to receive treatment from the VA. He now rests at Ft. Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, buried with full military honors.
Last year, a former Marine named Daniel Torres was granted citizenship, in part because he voluntarily removed himself from the country once it was discovered he’d used a fake birth certificate to enlist. But for many deported veterans, the stories are more complex, a combination of harsh immigration policies in which there are no second chances and the well-documented vulnerabilities veterans face when they return home, no matter their country of origin.
Though rates of incarceration reportedly have been falling, as recently as a few years ago nearly one in 10 inmates in American prisons had completed military service; in the mid-2000s the number of veterans in the justice system was termed a “national crisis.” Studies regularly correlated PTSD or traumatic brain injuries with nonviolent crime, particularly when combined with substance abuse or family issues. (The VA estimates one-fifth of veterans with post-traumatic stress also struggle with at least one substance abuse problem.)
The issue is especially raw because of the United States’ history of using expedited naturalization as an incentive to serve in the military. During wartime, entering the service has been one of the quickest ways for a longterm resident to become a full U.S. citizen. It’s been estimated that during World War I about 10% of the armed forces were foreign-born, and during World War II Congress began to formally expedite the naturalization process for those who enlisted. The practice was suspended during the Vietnam War, only to be reintroduced in the 2000s.
During the Bush years and the post-9/11 wars that marked them, overseas naturalization services were reinstated, as well as an optional naturalization ceremony upon the completion of boot camp. Timelines were shortened. But as was documented in a wide-ranging ACLU investigation last year, the government rarely advertises or facilitates the process. Veterans with difficult immigration statuses, if they commit a crime, find themselves represented by attorneys who don’t inform them of the full consequences of a guilty plea. Some unnaturalized veterans, like Perez, mistakenly believe serving in the military is enough to grant them citizenship in the first place.
The crimes that land these veterans in ICE’s custody plague a vast number of people who have done time in the service. The failure to adequately care for veterans upon their return home—or to keep them from falling into cycles of homelessness, drug addiction, and the criminal acts that attend both—inspired the first Veterans Court in 2008, a locally tailored program taking veterans’ issues into account and privileging rehabilitation over punishment. (There are now more than 50 in the United States, though federal funding for those in “sanctuary” counties may be in jeopardy.)
For example: Late last year, a 65-year-old veteran in Ohio facing five felony counts including cocaine trafficking and possession charges saw his local Veterans Court. He was issued another veteran as a mentor and put through a rehabilitation program. But there are no such options for people like Torres, or for Juan Valdez, a 33-year-old former member of the Navy recently deported for helping a friend move pot. Or for Hector Barajas, who now runs a house for deported veterans in Tijuana and tells me PTSD and drug addiction were directly responsible for his deportation in the early 2000s, when he fired a gun into a vehicle. (No one was hurt.)
Barajas has been advocating for the rights of deported veterans for almost a decade, and he says that while he expects these issues to get worse as the Trump administration pushes their (in his judicious words) “less lenient” agenda towards immigrants, he does have hope for legislation moving forward.
Last spring an Arizona lawmaker introduced a bill that would allow deported veterans convicted of minor or nonviolent crimes to return home. In California, assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher just wrote a bill that would create a legal aid fund for deported veterans.
“In 15 years, there’s been nothing,” Barajas says. “And then in the last year there have been a couple laws” introduced that might help his cause.
Still, he admits, there are no easy answers to such a wide-ranging set of powers that have left him stranded in Tijuana: “Everything needs to be fixed.”
A previous version of this article erroneously stated when Perez was enlisted. It has since been updated.