I met Ricardo in January 2020. He wore a black wool jacket, which seemed like overkill in the Tijuana sun. During Brown’s “US-Mexico Border and Borderlands: Experiential Learning On the Ground and In the Field” course in January 2020, I heard many narratives that challenged my understanding of US policy toward non-citizens. However, I never anticipated Ricardo’s story. He explained how his family moved to the US on a green card when he was three years old. After 9/11, he enlisted in the Air Force and served honorably for seven years. Ricardo assumed that since he had served in the US military, he would automatically be given US citizenship. However, this was not the case. Instead, the government deported him. Ricardo tearfully expressed hope that someday, Congress will pass a bill allowing him to return to his real home: America.
The term “deported veteran” seems like an oxymoron. Yet, according to the Government Accountability Office, 92 ex-servicemembers were deported between 2013-18. ICE does not track the number of veterans it deports, but one advocate for deported veterans estimates that the number is likely in the thousands. Although they served in different branches and reside around the world, these deported ex-servicemembers share the same dream – returning to the country that they risked their lives to protect. When I heard Ricardo’s story, I was outraged. America’s veteran deportation policy is a national disgrace, betraying those who served and desecrating rational justice.
The US has relied on immigrant soldiers in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War. According to the Department of Defense, 44,000 noncitizens joined the military between 2013-2018. In 2020, most noncitizen servicemembers are permanent, legal residents of the US. Yet, surprisingly, their service does not automatically enroll them as citizens. President George Bush signed an executive order fast-tracking veterans for naturalization, but too many fall through the cracks or lose their residencies for minor transgressions. For example, foreign-born servicemembers can lose their residency status if they commit an “aggravated felony,” which expanded in 1996 to include non-violent crimes such as drug offences, theft, and tax fraud. Additionally, many ex-servicemembers assume that they will receive citizenship if they just wait, leaving them vulnerable to Washington’s deportation policies.
The decision to deport these veterans is a denial of their extraordinary service to this country. I am a citizen because I happened to be born here. However, these men and women spent years serving the US, many risked their lives for it, and they are still considered unworthy of the rights afforded to all American citizens. Rather than make efforts to reintegrate these veterans into society, the government exiles them to countries that many have not seen since childhood. These veterans should be treated the same for their transgressions as anyone else. They swore an oath to defend the Constitution; the Constitution did not defend them.
Moreover, deportation can exact a terrible toll on veterans’ mental well-being s. Many deported veterans are separated from American-born families and lack social networks in their birth countries. These dynamics, in addition to linguistic barriers, contribute to a suffocating sense of isolation once they are deported. The damage is not only psychological; many veterans exhaust their savings to fight their deportation proceedings, leaving them without resources in a foreign world. In Mexico, drug cartels prey on this desperation, coercing ex-servicemembers to join criminal operations for their combat skills. If the veterans refuse, gangs are known to threaten their families and retaliate with violence. In this way, some American veterans find themselves back on the battlefield, fighting for groups that subvert American law. This system makes both countries less safe and puts the veterans in harm’s way.
Although deported veterans retain rights to government-funded healthcare, they often cannot access it due to their legal status. This leads to physical and mental wounds of war going untreated, contributing to increased levels of drug abuse and suicide. In a case of cruel irony, some deported veterans do eventually re-enter the US as corpses for military funerals. Paradox epitomizes America’s relationship with its deported veterans; the country “honors” them by allowing entrance upon death yet does not let them see their families and live in their country with dignity. Sadly, few ex-servicemembers regain their citizenship after deportation. Governors in California and Illinois have pardoned individuals, but structural change is necessary to bring these heroes home.
Despite this bleak landscape, veterans retain hope as they look to reconstruct their lives. There is nothing permanent or insurmountable about America’s deportation veteran policy. We know the legal holes that allow such a system to exist. The main problem is forming the political will to fix them. Potential legislation such as the “Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act of 2019” seeks to force ICE to follow established protocols to slow veteran deportations. Past bills such as the “Veterans Visa and Protection Act of 2016” represent pushes to create pathways for honorably discharged veterans to enter the country and become naturalized. At the very least, the government should remove the “aggravated felony bar” for ex-servicemembers. This change would grant courts more power to cancel veteran deportations, instead of automatically exiling them. Whether policymakers overhaul the system or reform it piece by piece, all should admit that it is broken and deserves redress.
As legal remedies work their way through Congress, thousands of deported veterans must reassemble their lives. Fortunately, in some locations, infrastructure to serve them has grown. In Tijuana, Mexico, the Deported Veterans Support House helps ex-servicemembers get back on their feet, access benefits, and apply for American citizenship. Since 2013, the organization has served almost a hundred veterans. In 2018, the VA established a clinic for Tijuana-based ex-servicemembers to receive healthcare. While these changes do not address structural problems or the needs of veterans across the globe, they represent growing organizational capabilities and governmental will to address the situation.
One article cannot do this issue justice. But hopefully, this brief glance into the world of deported veterans moves you. America is failing these honorable men and women at every level. First, it denies their contributions to national security, casting them aside as “outsiders”. Second, it punishes them unfairly through the dual harms of incarceration and deportation. Finally, deported ex-servicemembers face massive barriers to accessing their rights and rebuilding their lives. The whole process is a slap in the face to those who deserve this nation’s best care and utmost attention. It is not justice; it is cruel and dangerous. Unless American citizens embrace the fact that Ricardo deserves better, the “American dream” he defended has lost its meaning.