Military veterans in uniform with their families holding sign reading "stop the deportation of military veterans" at border port of entry

Repatriating Veterans

May-June 2024 Series on Deportation and Coerced Return in the Américas.


Introduction

Soon after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 2001, Hector Barajas-Varela had trouble reintegrating into civilian life and found himself serving over a three-year prison sentence for firing a gun into a vehicle. Because he was a permanent resident at the time of his conviction, Barajas-Varela was deported to Mexico after completing his sentence in 2004. Although he later entered and settled in the U.S. without authorization, he was again deported to Mexico in 2009 for a traffic violation. Barajas-Varela quickly realized that many more veterans were deported to Tijuana, Mexico, prompting his creation of the Deported Veterans Support House in 2013.

Under the current immigration enforcement regime, non-citizen U.S. military veterans can be deported if they commit “aggravated felonies,” a new category of crimes Congress invented in 1988 to remove deportable immigrants.[i] Aggravated felonies initially ranged from serious crimes such as murder and rape, and then were further expanded to include non-violent crimes, such as fraud, forgery, and counterfeiting, with the implementation of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).[ii] Some estimates suggest that the U.S. has deported over 3,000 veterans to their countries of origin since IIRIRA.[iii]

The assault on immigrants in the 1990s, both authorized or otherwise, was part of a larger pivot in U.S. politics that turned to immigrants as the scapegoat for economic and security issues.[iv] Congress under Democratic and Republican administrations gradually peeled away at protections to remain in the country, such as Judicial Recommendations Against Deportation (JRAD) that gave criminal court judges the power to disregard a conviction as grounds for removal. Before 1990, criminal immigrant veterans were protected from deportation since JRAD was part of the sentencing process. In 1996, IIRIRA erased all access to discretionary relief. As a result, veterans unaware of their naturalization eligibility while in service could become permanently barred from citizenship if convicted of an aggravated felony.[v]

To raise awareness on deported veterans, organizations have adopted the language of repatriation such as Repatriate Our Patriots, headquartered in El Paso, Texas, whose mission centers on bringing all deported veterans back to the U.S. Their advocacy work prompted members of Congress to introduce legislation in 2021—bearing the organization’s name—to cancel pending removal orders against veterans and return deported veterans back to the U.S. that meet certain criteria.[vi]

It is interesting to see organizations using the language of repatriation for deported veterans considering that repatriation refers to immigrants voluntarily leaving the host country to return to their native country.[vii] Veterans that find themselves in removal proceedings are deported to their countries of origin. Repatriation, in this case, suggests that the U.S. is the country of origin for deported veterans, it assumes that prior military service offers non-citizens a claim to remain in the country despite violating immigration law.

Rhetoric such as “repatriation” and “patriots” is meant to appeal to discourse that reduces debates over immigration to the good and the bad immigrant, the deserving and undeserving immigrant. Under this logic, because they are willing to endure physical bodily harm, non-citizen service members and veterans deserve relief from removal. I’m sympathetic to this normative claim and take it a step further by insisting that service members must be seen as synonymous with political members. In other words, democracies deploying troops to prosecute wars have an obligation not only to the social welfare of those troops but also to reintegrate them back into the society they set off to defend. To be clear, immigrant service members are not more deserving of citizenship than other immigrants. Immigrant service members and veterans have an expectation that citizenship—or at the very least, the ability to remain in the country—follows from military service. Anything short of securing the right to remain in the country will likely degrade the trust between the U.S. and immigrant communities. Deporting veterans, especially after they completed combat deployments, reveals the disposability of immigrant labor in the military, demonstrating their close proximity to “illegality.”

A New Yet Familiar Issue

It is ironic that deported veterans enlisted in the military for the opportunity to serve their host country while simultaneously laboring to secure their place in the U.S., only to be discarded when reintegrating back into civilian life proved to be challenging. On top of being exiled, usually, to a country they have little to no connection with, deported veterans are systematically excluded from accessing Veterans Affairs (VA) resources since these are primarily located in the U.S. Though deported, veterans with an other than dishonorable discharge—e.g., honorable, under honorable conditions, or a general discharge—have a right to VA health care benefits. Those with an honorable discharge and a service-connected medical condition are potentially eligible to receive tax-free monthly payments as disability compensation.[viii] In a way, deported veterans are discriminated against by the federal government due to their national origin.

Similar to the challenges faced by the American G.I. Forum (AGIF) fighting for VA health care access after WWII, deported veterans lack complete access to VA facilities. With the introduction of telehealth, deported veterans with stable internet connections have been able to secure appointments with health care professionals. Still, for those that qualify, most are ineligible from receiving consistent mental health services, job training, or accessing higher education. One deported veteran that I interviewed living in Juarez, Mexico, secured disability compensation for his service-connected injuries. Although the Department of Homeland Security deemed him deportable, the VA recognizes that he sustained injuries from serving and, by law, provides a monthly disability payment.

Another way that deported veteran mobilizations are analogous to AGIF is through the lack of a racial or ethnic identity. Deported veterans’ organizations do not relate this issue to their ethnic or racial backgrounds; instead, they view themselves as U.S. veterans that happen to be born in a different country. Intentionally minimizing race is meant to highlight their patriotism and commitment to meritocracy. In many ways, deported veterans continue to embrace military culture—emphasizing a specific set of standards, behaviors, traditions, and values—that typically opposes liberal norms of individuality in support of republican principles of community. Along with encouraging meritocracy, military culture adapted to racial integration by applying a colorblind framework.[ix] Deported veterans cling to their service as the worthiest attribute to plead for re-entry.

In reality, deporting veterans is explicitly racial. The top five countries of origin among military naturalization applications filed between 2010 to 2021 were the Philippines, Mexico, Jamaica, China, and South Korea.[x] Equally important to consider is that much of the publicity on deported veterans is concentrated on Latinx veterans. Some organizations, like the Black Deported Veterans of America, are conscious about the dominance of deported Latinx veteran narratives and, also, the lack of attention paid to other racially marginalized veterans. Although non-citizens from the Philippines have the highest number of enlisted service members, deported veterans from Mexico and Central America consistently reintroduce the debate in the media. One explanation could be because of their proximity to the U.S. where deported veterans’ organizations have emerged across the border. Nonetheless, deported Latinx veterans may not constitute the majority of veterans that are deported; however, they do represent the everyday image of those impacted by U.S. immigration enforcement.

Deported Veterans Advocacy

It seems as if Latinx veterans’ advocacy ebbs and flows with the contemporary forms of institutional oppression experienced in their communities. During the post-war period, the AGIF demanded equal access to VA healthcare, education, and home loan assistance programs. As the homeland security state congealed after 9/11, veterans’ advocacy adopted non-citizen and deported veterans’ issues. What is clear from both moments is that serving in the military for Mexican American and non-citizen veterans failed to provide the social and political membership veterans are assumed to enjoy in the U.S.

There appears to be three areas that deported veterans’ advocates are focused on: allowing veterans to return to the U.S., facilitating access to VA resources, and updating military naturalization policies. Repatriate our Patriots demands that the U.S. pardon crimes that made veterans deportable. On the one hand, the mobilization suggests that all deported veterans should be allowed to return. On the other, Congress is unwilling to support broad pardons for all deported veterans. Instead, its most recent bill proposed the category of a “special veteran” who are honorably discharged veterans not convicted of voluntary manslaughter, murder, rape, or child abuse. In other words, even members of Congress supporting deported veteran issues disagree with the idea that prior military service supersedes “good moral character” requirements. At the same time, some deported veterans, like Hector Barajas-Varela, were able to successfully return to the U.S. by receiving state pardons.[xi] The clemency power that individual state governors and the president hold is currently the most effective pathway to allow deported veterans back into the U.S. This means that deported veterans must plead for a pardon with the person with direct authority to overturn their conviction for a state or federal crime.

Deported veterans’ organizations have been the most successful in acquiring VA resources. For instance, in 2020, San Diego County established a Vet Connect station in Tijuana, Mexico, offering deported veterans in the area a secure video conferencing platform to meet with VA representatives from the Regional Office.[xii] Organizations can further emphasize the need to establish Vet Connect stations in areas where deported veterans are concentrated in Mexico, Central America, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Of course, deported veterans’ issues would cease if non-citizens received citizenship for their military service. At the end of the day, naturalization benefits are recruitment incentives—like education benefits—that are uncertain. Until the U.S. updates military naturalization policies to provide non-citizens with civil rights to remain in the country after their service, immigration enforcement will continue to be an obstacle for non-citizen veterans. By civil rights, I suggest the U.S. grant “national” status for all current and future non-citizen service members. As a U.S. national, non-citizen veterans will lack political membership; however, they will gain protection from removal.

Featured Image: The Valenzuela brothers at the San Ysidro-Tijuana Border Port of Entry, San Diego, CA (2012). Photo by April Arreola. CC BY-NC-ND

Notes

[i] Deenesh Sohoni and Yosselin Turcios, “Discarded Loyalty: The Deportation of Immigrant Veterans,” Lewis & Clark Law Review 24 (2020): 1285.

[ii] Ibid, 1308.

[iii] Mark Takano, “Memos to Mark: Deported Veterans,” Medium, February 16, 2018, https://medium.com/@repmarktakano/memos-to-mark-deported-veterans-7215fc364e05.

[iv] De Genova, Nicholas De, and Nathalie Peutz, eds. The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010.

[v] Bardis Vakili, Jennie Pasquarella, and Tony Marcano, “Discharged Then Discarded: How U.S. Veterans Are Banished by the Country They Swore to Protect” (American Civil Liberties Union of California, 2016), https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/dischargedthendiscarded-acluofca.pdf.

[vi] U.S. Congress, House, To prohibit the removal from the United States certain veterans, to expedite their naturalization, and for other purposes (Repatriate Our Patriots Act), HR 4382, 117th Cong., 1st sess., introduced in House July 9, 2021, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4382/text?s=1&r=84

[vii] Francisco E. Balderrama, “The Emergence of Unconstitutional Deportation and Repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans as a Public Issue,” Radical History Review 2005, no. 93 (October 1, 2005): 107–10, https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-2005-93-107.

[viii] Veterans Affairs. “Eligibility for VA Disability Benefits,” August 15, 2023. https://www.va.gov/disability/eligibility/.

[ix] Brittany Hunt, Jae Hoon Lim, and John A. Williams, “Unsung Heroes on Campus: Minority Veterans’ Transition Experiences by Race,” The Journal of Higher Education 93, no. 5 (2022): 769–91.

[x] “MILITARY NATURALIZATIONS: Federal Agencies Assist with Naturalizations, but Additional Monitoring and Assessment Are Needed,” Report to Congressional Requesters (Government Accountability Office, 2022), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-105021.pdf.

[xi] Kristine Phillips, “A Deported Veteran Has Been Granted U.S. Citizenship, after 14 Years of Living in Mexico,” Washington Post, March 31, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2018/03/31/a-deported-veteran-has-been-granted-u-s-citizenship-after-14-years-of-living-in-mexico/.

[xii] Charles T. Clark, “Deported Veterans Have Trouble Accessing Their Benefits, so San Diego Is Building a Vet Connect Station in Tijuana to Help Them Out,” Task & Purpose, March 10, 2020, https://taskandpurpose.com/military-life/deported-veterans-access-benefits-tijuana/.

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