U.S. War Veterans Fight Deportation
La Opinión, News Report, Pilar Marrero, Translated by Elena Shore and Suzanne Manneh Posted: Jan 24, 2010
Not even the most decorated and honorable military service can protect U.S. war veterans from ruthless immigration laws, which consider a long list of non-violent crimes as grounds for deportation.
More and more cases have come to light of veterans who, after serving in this country’s Armed Forces and armed conflicts, get in trouble with the law when they come home and end up in deportation proceedings.
According to activists, hundreds of veterans – perhaps even thousands – have already been deported. There are no official figures because all deportations are counted together and military service has no effect, positive or negative, on the process, immigration lawyers say.
Héctor López, who now lives in Rosarito, Baja California, is one of them.
"When I came home from the service I got involved in drugs and alcohol. I was arrested a few times for that, for having open bottles in the car, or drugs,” says López in a phone interview from Mexico. "I never got involved in violent crimes, and I’m not a terrorist. But my service didn’t matter. I was deported."
For some, it’s a situation that took them by surprise after many years of residence and service.
That’s what happened to Louie Álvarez, who came here from Mexico when he was four years old. When he was 17, in the 1970s, he joined the Marines because, he says, he felt totally American. "I grew up with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart movies," he says.
Álvarez served in Vietnam, and when he came home he started hanging out with people in his neighborhood who did drugs, and he started doing drugs himself. He was arrested several times for possession and went to jail for a short time. A few years later he was arrested again with a “small quantity of marijuana in the car.” He went to prison, and after serving his time he was handed over to immigration authorities to be deported.
After many attempts, Álvarez was released on bond. He is now in his third appeal before the Ninth Circuit. But he knows he’s going to lose.
"I'm trying to buy time," said Alvarez, who lives with his family in the town of Aliso Viejo, in Orange County, Calif. When he was detained by the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in El Centro, he applied for naturalization to see if they would grant it to him. After all, soldiers currently receive an accelerated and generous process of naturalization, even if they are not residents, especially when they have served in times of war.
His case wasn’t rejected, but it wasn’t approved wither. But most likely it will not be granted. One of the conditions that veterans have to meet – despite being exempt from many others – is having “good moral conduct.” In other words, they can’t have committed any crimes.
That’s easier said than done, according to Robyn Sword, who along with some soldiers founded the group Exiled Veterans, which seeks to bring attention to their situation.
Sword is the girlfriend of Rohan Coombs, a Jamaican veteran who served in the first Gulf War and returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental disorder that was not taken seriously until recently that many returning soldiers suffer from.
"He was suffering from PTSD without knowing it, and then his wife died right before Christmas, and the problem got worse. He started to fall into a downward spiral, he started using marijuana and drinking to try to alleviate the feelings he had, He got into trouble a few times and he was convicted three times for drug offenses,” said Sword.
In addition to the incidence of PTSD, drug and alcohol problems are not uncommon in war veterans. For example, a study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that one third of veterans demonstrate mental or psychosocial problems, and 20 percent have been diagnosed with an alcohol or drug problem.
Sword claims that many don’t even know they have a problem and end up in trouble with the law.
Coombs has been in an ICE detention center for more than a year and has a trial date set for March. "We know he will be deported and will appeal the case. The only thing left is for the Secretary of Homeland Security (Janet Napolitano) to give an order to stop the deportation of these veterans ... or to change the law," she added.
If these soldiers had been U.S. citizens when they got out of the service, none of this would have happened, explained Heather Boxeth, a San Diego lawyer who has represented several veterans pro bono.
A citizen cannot be deported, no matter how many crimes he or she committed, she explained. But a foreigner, a permanent resident who is not a citizen, can be deported for committing various offenses outlined in the 1996 immigration reform act as “aggravated felonies” -- even many of them are not actually felonies under the criminal code.
"There are many more than you can imagine," said Boxeth. "Last Tuesday I lost another case, a Vietnam veteran who was deported. The judge told me after the hearing that he did not want to (deport him). But he had no choice under the law."
Boxeth, the National Lawyers Guild and other lawyers and activists argue that veterans should be considered U.S. "nationals" because when they enlist in the military, they have to take an oath of loyalty almost exactly like the oath people take to become naturalized citizens.
"We're not saying they have to make them citizens, but nationals for serving in the Armed Forces. If the courts reject that argument, the law needs to change," says Boxeth.
It is very contradictory, Boxeth says, that the law allows for the posthumous naturalization of soldiers who die in war, and yet deports "those who survived, who served honorably and then got into trouble, in many cases, because of their service."
Some lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have shown sympathy for these cases. California Congressman Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, have expressed their solidarity and spoken out on behalf of the veterans facing deportation.
But most lawmakers "think that since they have committed crimes, they can’t be defended politically," said Sword.
A few days ago, the Department of Homeland Security ended regulations that facilitated citizenship for veterans of the Armed Forces. Currently, an immigrant can become a citizen after serving only one day in a war, even if he or she is not a permanent resident.
But current law does not allow immigrant soldiers to become citizens -- regardless of how honorable their service was -- if they have had any serious problems with the law. It doesn’t prevent their deportations either.
"Even though we should be grateful for their service, that doesn’t mean that when people commit crimes they don’t pay the consequences. If you are a resident and you commit certain crimes, you can be deported. And many of these crimes also probably complicate the path to citizenship,” says Chris Bentley, spokesman for DHS.
Hector Lopez, who was deported to Mexico--where he hadn’t lived for more than 30 years, had to learn Spanish. He doesn’t understand how his country can abandon him like this.
"It is very difficult. I consider myself an American. There are no jobs here, they pay 60 pesos a day. Certainly I made mistakes, but I have reasons to live. Now I am clean, I'm healthy, this isn’t fair. I’m not a terrorist, I didn’t bomb anything. I want to return to my country. "
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