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Honorable Military Service Doesn’t Protect Immigrants From Trump Deportation or Expulsion, GAO Report Reveals Increased Deportations

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UPDATE:  House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) and Rep. Juan Vargas (CA-51) sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding answers to the General Accountability Office’s (GAO) finding that ICE is deporting veterans in violation of policy.

Families are Affected, Too

Yesterday, the Military Times described a recent General Accountability Office (GAO) report concluding, “Over the past couple of years, stories of non-citizen veterans being deported have made major headlines. As it turns out, there is a process in place that provides extra consideration for those immigration cases, but federal officials haven’t been following it.”  A review of the GAO report and others suggest members of the military, before and after discharge, face increasing risk of deportation, naturalization denials and slowdowns, and/or expulsion from the military due to their immigration status under the Trump administration.  

There are a number of stories of service members – Jose Segovia, Miguel Perez-Montes, and U.S. born Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, to name a few – coming home after combat with traumatic brain injury and PTSD, thereby leading to criminal convictions that result in ICE detention and initiation of deportation.  

Many of these issues also affect the family members of service members, like the adopted daughter of a former Army lieutenant colonel, Hyebin, who is facing deportation because she was adopted one year too late under the law. There’s the wife, Alejandra Juarez, of a “decorated Marine sergeant” whose U.S. eight-year-old citizen daughter pleaded for help to stop her mother’s deportation. And there’s the husband of a fallen U.S. soldier – Jose Gonzalez Carranza – who was deported, leaving behind a 12-year-old U.S. citizen daughter without a parent.       

The GAO report details the deportation of veterans without regard to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy requiring special consideration for military service before the initiation of deportation. The GAO also found that the number of naturalization applications by service members and approval of those applications have sharply decreased in the last two years due to Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policy changes, as well as a slowdown in processing at USCIS.  Other reports show that not only are veterans being deported, some have faced expulsion from the military due to their immigration status.

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said:  “Naturalization due to service in the U.S. Armed Forces has a long tradition dating back hundreds of years.  Congress has recognized throughout our history that a person who pledges military service – which means he/she is willing to lay down their life for the country – is one of the strongest reasons to support naturalization. It was true during the American Revolution, World War II, and since 9/11. What has changed? Yes, all enlistees and applicants, whatever their nationality or background should be vetted, but what we’re seeing now is that pledging military service is actually a liability for immigrants. It’s taking longer for them to naturalize compared to immigrant civilians, they have faced expulsion from the military, there is little protection from deportation when a veteran suffers PTSD due to their service, and families of service members are also seeing fewer and fewer protections from deportation.”

The following provides a summary of the GAO and other reports.  

ICE Fails to Identify and Document Veterans it Encounters for Potential Removal – According to the GAO:

ICE does not have a policy requiring agents and officers to specifically ask about and document veteran status…[and]…ICE does not maintain complete electronic data on veterans who have been placed in removal proceedings or removed…[Therefore,] ICE does not know exactly how many veterans have been placed in removal proceedings or removed, or if their cases have been handled according to ICE’s policies.  

The GAO was able to identify 250 veterans placed in removal proceedings, 92 of those already removed, but there could be more since ICE does not consistently identify and document veteran encounters.

ICE Fails to Follow Policy Requiring Special Review and Consideration Before Initiating Veteran Deportations – According to the GAO, ICE policy from 2004 requires that special consideration be given to military service members, including consideration for prosecutorial discretion by higher level officials, before initiating removal. Furthermore, 2015 policy requires careful attention to anyone encountered by ICE who many be a U.S citizen and, specifically, that U.S. military service is one indicator of U.S. citizenship. Not only is ICE unable to apply these policies to all service members due to its failure to identify and track such cases, ICE fails to consistently apply the policies when military service is identified. According to the GAO:

Our analysis of removed veterans’ alien files found that ICE does not consistently follow these policies. Our analysis found that ICE did not satisfy the 2004 requirement…in 18 of 87 (21 percent) cases…Our analysis also found that ICE did not meet the requirements of the 2015 policy requiring elevation to headquarters in 26 of the 37 cases (70 percent) of the cases for which the policy applied. Further, in December 2018 HSI officials told us that HSI has not been adhering to either the 2004 or the 2015 policies because they were unaware of the policies prior to our review.

Number of Military Naturalization Applications and Approvals sharply Decrease Under the Trump Administration – According to the GAO:

While the number of military naturalization applications was relatively stable between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, applications declined by 72 percent from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018…As a result of this decline in applications, the number of service members approved for naturalization also declined, from 7,303 in fiscal year 2017 to 4,309 in fiscal year 2018.

USCIS and DOD officials attributed the decline in military naturalization applications to several DOD policy changes. First, DOD suspended the MAVNI program in September 2016, which reduced the number of noncitizens joining the military. Second, in October 2017, DOD issued policies expanding background check requirements for LPR and MAVNI recruits.According to DOD officials, due to backlogs in the background check process, these new recruits were delayed in beginning their service, and officials stated that it may take DOD up to a year to complete enhanced requirements for certain recruits.

Third, in October 2017, DOD increased the amount of time noncitizens must serve before DOD will certify their honorable service for naturalization purposes. Under the new policy, noncitizens must complete security screening, basic military training, and serve 180 days for a characterization of service determination. Previously, DOD granted that determination in as little as a few days of service.

USCIS made several changes to its military naturalization processes in response to or in tandem with DOD’s policy changes. First, in July 2017, USCIS determined that the completion of DOD background checks was relevant to MAVNI recruits’ eligibility for naturalization. USCIS thus began requiring currently-serving MAVNI recruits seeking military naturalization to complete all required DOD background checks before USCIS interviewed them, approved their applications, or administered the Oath of Allegiance to naturalize them.

Second, in January 2018, USCIS ended its initiative to naturalize new enlistees at basic training sites…Because of DOD’s October 2017 policy change increasing the amount of time noncitizens must serve before they are eligible for a characterization of service determination, noncitizen service members no longer meet the requirements for naturalization while they are completing basic training.

USCIS’s processing time for military naturalizations also increased, from an average of 5.4 months in fiscal year 2017 to 12.5 months in fiscal year 2018, according to USCIS data. USCIS officials attributed this increase to the backlog in DOD background checks for MAVNI recruits, as well as an increased volume of naturalization applications from non-military applicants.

Denials of Military Naturalization Increase – According to a review of USCIS data by Task & Purpose, “Immigrants serving in the U.S. military are being denied citizenship at a higher rate than foreign-born civilians.” Furthermore, “The fiscal year 2019 data is the eighth quarterly report of military naturalization rates since Trump took office. In six of the last eight reports, civilians had a higher rate of approval for citizenship than military applicants did, reversing the previous trend.”

Discharge of Immigrant Military Service Members – According to a report last year by the Associated Press, more than 40 immigrants enlisted in the military through a special program with “a promised path to citizenship” – Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) – were abruptly discharged or being questioned for discharge. “Some of the service members say they were not told why they were being discharged. Others who pressed for answers said the Army informed them they’d been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.” Only after a lawsuit and public attention to the matter did the Defense Department announce that it would suspend such discharges.

Increase in Applications and Denials for Protection Against Deportation for Family of Service Members – According to the Military Times, as President Trump “directed the Department of Homeland Security to increase the number of deportations it processed,” requests for assistance in forestalling deportation for family of service members “spiked 31 percent from the last year of the Obama administration to the first year of Trump’s presidency.” Furthermore, such requests were rejected at a higher rate under the Trump administration than under the Obama administration.  

The data shows that rejections of veteran requests have increased under President Donald Trump, from about a 10 percent rejection rate in fiscal 2016, the last year President Barack Obama was in office, to an almost 20 percent rejection rate through the first nine months of fiscal 2018…While the increase in rejections for the dependents of active members was not as steep, it still rose from slightly more than 11 percent in fiscal 2016 to about 14.5 percent to date in fiscal 2018.