On Veterans Day, our nation honors the Americans who have put their lives on the line and served their country in uniform. These brave men and women include hundreds of thousands of immigrant veterans who carry the U.S. flag on their sleeves and in their hearts and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Immigrants in fact have a long tradition of serving in the United States military, fighting in major conflicts since the nation’s founding, FWD.us said in a report last year.
“Hundreds of thousands of immigrants pledged to defend the United States with their lives in the Civil War, both World Wars, and conflicts like those in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq,” the report said. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice: Marine Lance Corporal José Gutierrez, the first U.S. serviceman to be killed in Iraq, was an undocumented immigrant. “FWD.us estimates that approximately 700,000 foreign-born veterans, many of whom are now U.S. citizens, live in the U.S. today. We estimate there are about 45,000 immigrants actively serving.” The largest share of immigrant veterans hail from Mexico and the Philippines, and represented more than half a million veterans in 2016, the Migration Policy Institute said. “Other major origin countries included Germany (33,000), Canada (31,000), Haiti (17,000), and India (15,000).”
Military service has been a valuable mechanism for thousands of immigrant service members to gain U.S. citizenship. “Between 1907 and 2018, 745,212 immigrants naturalized through military service,” the New American Economy Research Fund said in 2019, with many taking advantage of a deserved, expedited pathway to citizenship established by Congress. The Trump administration despicably sought to block this accelerated pathway, a move that the American Civil Liberties Union called “a racist attempt to subvert this clear congressional mandate in furtherance of its anti-immigrant agenda.” A federal court thankfully blocked this outrageous policy decision.
But just as immigrant service members have depended on the U.S. military to help stabilize their lives here, the U.S. military has depended on immigrant service members to build and strengthen its numbers, skills and power. “Without the contributions of immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals and could not fill its need for foreign‐language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts,” Margaret D. Stock, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, wrote in a 2008 American Immigration Council report. Stock noted that the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that immigrants were joining the U.S. military at a rate of 8,000 people annually.
“Of the more than 3,400 Medals of Honor awarded since the Civil War, 22% have gone to immigrants, according to the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP),” Military.com reported. In 2006 Senate testimony, late U.S. senator and immigration champion Ted Kennedy noted that 150 bronze stars and two silver stars were awarded to immigrant service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “It’s an extraordinary record,” he commented.
But our nation has often not done right by these brave men and women. “Deported veterans” is a term that shouldn’t exist, yet it’s been the reality for hundreds of immigrant service members who’ve been exiled, by both Democratic and Republican administrations alike, after putting their lives on the line for their country. Some reports have estimated that more than 230 immigrant veterans have been deported, many after struggling with PTSD and substance abuse issues that followed their deployment and return home. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) would reveal in a shocking 2019 report that “because ICE does not maintain complete electronic data on potentially removable veterans it encounters,” we actually don’t know how many service members have been deported. ICE also has policies in place that it’s supposed to follow in cases involving a military veteran, but the GAO found these were not being followed either.
Among deported immigrant veterans was Hector Barajas-Varela, who established what was dubbed “The Bunker,” a support center in Tijuana for other deported U.S. veterans like himself. But a legal push from advocates and a pardon from former California Gov Jerry Brown helped secure Barajas-Varela’s victorious return home to the U.S. in 2018 to be sworn in as a citizen of the nation he defended in uniform. He pledged to not forget his deported military siblings. “‘My dream is to put my child through college and to see veterans come home,’ said Barajas-Varela, who emphasized this commitment to continue his work at the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana,” NBC News reported in 2018. “I have a chance to be a new person.”
The Biden administration in 2021 announced a formal initiative to return other unjustly deported immigrant veterans (and additionally, the immediate family members of immigrant veterans), as well as an effort to ensure that immigrant veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled. In just one example, a number of deported U.S. military veterans were allowed to briefly cross into the U.S. through ports of entry to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. “It’s our responsibility to serve all veterans as well as they have served us—no matter who they are, where they are from, or the status of their citizenship,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said at the time.
That same year, over 4,400 former and current military service members, as well as family members, were sworn in as U.S. citizens as part of the Veterans Day observance. Department of Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas presided over one such naturalization ceremony in Maryland. “The willingness to serve in our armed forces before you become U.S. citizens is truly a remarkable example of devotion to country and our highest ideals,” Mayorkas wrote in a tweet at the time. “On the eve of #VeteransDay, we congratulate you for everything that you have done and continue to do for all of us.”
On Veterans Day 2023, we continue to thank immigrant military members, and all military members, for their service and sacrifices for our nation. You may not be a fan of militarism or war, but you have to respect the men and women who have stepped up at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. That includes ensuring they have the benefits and citizenship they’ve deservedly earned, and are able to live in the country they bravely fought for.