SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego leaders joined deported veterans Tuesday to raise public awareness that hundreds of service members who were honorably discharged have been deported despite being promised citizenship for serving in the U.S. military.
Nathan Fletcher, former California assemblyman and current chairman of Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported, was joined Tuesday by Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Rick Reyes of the Cal Vet Minority Veterans Division and former deported veteran Daniel Torres – who was the first veteran to earn citizenship while he was outside the country.
Hector Barajas, director of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, joined the panel via Skype because he lacked authorization to be in the United States.
California lawmakers and leaders want to get the word out that 30,000 of the 170,000 immigrant veterans in California are eligible to become naturalized citizens but have yet to take advantage of the legal help available to do so.
Fletcher said some immigrant veterans don’t even know they are not citizens, which is why the state Veterans Administration has ramped up efforts to connect veterans with free legal services to get help with the naturalization process.
He said that the typical challenges veterans face when applying for benefits through the VA are only exacerbated for veterans trying to navigate the naturalization process.
“Working with the VA is difficult for every veteran who needs help navigating the system,” Fletcher, a veteran himself, said.
“We can put a missile through the fourth floor of a window in a building halfway around the world, but we can’t get you your immigration paperwork,” he added.
Torres was touted as a “success story,” as he was granted citizenship in 2016 after he was honorably discharged for falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen when he enlisted with the Marine Corps. Torres said he self-deported in 2011 since he could not work or attend school in the U.S. He attended law school in Tijuana instead.
“I didn’t want to be a ‘Mexican taking someone else’s job.’ I grew up in the United States and was brought here as a minor, and I wanted to contribute to the country I called home,” Torres said of his decision to join the Marine Corps.
He said deported veterans are some of the “most loyal Americans” and that many get deported due to drug use or crimes committed stemming from mental health problems related to their military service.
“Most veterans who have been deported have mental health issues,” Torres said.
“They have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], they have addiction issues, they have depression, and these problems stem from their time in the service,” he added. “They get out and have issues and aren’t getting the help they deserve, the help that they’ve earned. The United States government gets rid of them and kicks them out.”
Torres said veterans are being punished for crimes twice: with time served followed by lifetime deportations.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown recently pardoned a trio of veterans deported to Mexico, including Barajas, who was deported after he was convicted of a gun-related crime in 2003.
California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher recently honored Barajas as her district’s veteran of the year. The assemblywoman is also the author of a bill currently making its way through the state legislature that would establish the Veteran Reentry Assistance Fund to provide legal services to deported veterans.
Fletcher believes the pardons by Brown give them the “strongest legal case possible to bring these men home.”
Barajas also pointed to the case of a deported veteran in Tijuana who was able to get a PTSD diagnosis and now receives close to $3,000 a month in VA benefits after fighting to get access to health care.
The ACLU currently has multiple cases pending that challenge veteran deportations, including a case on behalf of Barajas and one for another service member who was pardoned by Brown, former marine Marco Chavez.
The issue of deported veterans has garnered more public attention as lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at ensuring those who enlist after being promised by military recruiters they will “automatically become citizens” for their service actually do have a path to citizenship.
Public awareness of the issue skyrocketed last summer after the ACLU released a report revealing that the government failed to ensure eligible service members were naturalized during their military careers. In addition, ramped-up immigration laws over the past few decades have led to more veterans being deported for low-level crimes.
Hundreds or even thousands of veterans are estimated to have been deported, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not keep track of the figure.
The Washington Post also reported on Tuesday that the government is considering canceling contracts for 1,000 foreign-born military recruits, exposing them to deportation.
U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., has introduced three bills in Congress aimed at helping non-citizen veterans get citizenship, as well as ensuring those veterans who’ve already been deported have access to healthcare through their VA benefits in their respective countries.
The recently approved 2017-18 state budget also allows deported veterans with ties to California to receive funding for legal representation through the $45-million “One California” fund that assists immigrants with legal services funding.
Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported has legal workshops planned for this summer to offer immigrant veterans help with obtaining citizenship.