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Tomorrow, the House Judiciary’s Immigration Subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine increasing immigration and naturalization obstacles faced by veterans, active duty service members, and their families under the Trump Administration. Just a few years ago, choosing to serve the nation through military service was often an important factor in expediting naturalization, preventing deportation, facilitating immigration for those with critical skills, and assisting military families through difficult immigration issues. Under the Trump administration, the reverse is now true.
According to a recent General Accountability Office report and data reviewed by McClatchy News, “Immigrants serving in the U.S. military are being denied citizenship at a higher rate than foreign-born civilians…reversing the previous trend.” In other words, it is now easier to naturalize as a civilian than it is for someone who puts their life on the line through U.S. military service. The GAO report found that the high denial rate is due to Department of Defense and USCIS policy changes, as well as a slowdown in USCIS processing of naturalization applications.
Instead of facilitating the naturalization of those serving abroad, the Trump administration announced plans to close the vast majority of offices available to process naturalization applications. Of 23 offices, only four will remain open, and each would be open only one week per quarter.
On top of increasing denials and limiting naturalization locations, according to a GAO report and McClatchy News, “the actual number of service members even applying for U.S. citizenship has also plummeted since President Donald Trump took office.”
The Trump administration recently issued a new policy that will make it harder for some children of U.S. citizens born abroad to obtain citizenship, including those serving the military. Although this new policy affects only a small number of children and does not necessarily bar them from ultimately achieving citizenship, it does narrow the avenues to obtain citizenship and creates new hurdles to becoming a citizen for the very reason many children are born abroad — a parent’s service to their country.
Under previous administrations, DHS often exercised its discretion to help members of the military and their families avoid deportation, especially for those actively serving. They would use tools such as parole-in-place, deferred action, and sometimes even close out deportation proceedings. But under the Trump administration, these tools are either being limited or ended. Moreover, according to the Military Times, 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.” And, such requests were rejected at a higher rate under the Trump administration than under the Obama administration.
In a case covered by the Military Times, a 20-year Air Force veteran is forced to live outside the U.S. just to keep his family together after his wife was “instructed by DHS to voluntarily leave” the U.S. He said, “‘I continue to this day as a DoD contract pilot, training international pilots in the Middle East…Our hopes, like many other veterans who are outside the U.S. for the same reason, is that we can come home and bring our family home one day.’” Another military spouse left “voluntarily” after receiving a deportation order in 2017. To keep their family together, the Army Specialist, who had deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, planned to relocate his entire family to Chiapas, Mexico after the school year ended. In another case, a mother and daughter “voluntarily” departed the U.S., leaving behind a husband and father and an older daughter, to avoid forced deportation under the Trump administration, a deportation that had been forestalled for years under the previous administration.
A new immigration rule, temporarily enjoined by multiple federal courts, will make it much easier to deny working class immigrants from obtaining a green card, even those who serve in the military. Although the income requirements for active duty servicemembers are not as strict as they are for civilians, the new rule will nonetheless limit some active duty service members from permanently reuniting with family members inside the U.S., precisely as a result of the low income some are paid for their military service. Moreover, although active duty service members were provided some leniency under the new rule, veterans were not. According to ProPublica, Trump’s Department of Veterans Affairs “took no action to spare veterans” from the “harsh” new rule, leaving them vulnerable to the same standards as civilians.
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 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. On top of this, the Washington Post reported, “Army officials inadvertently disclosed sensitive information about hundreds of immigrant recruits from nations such as China and Russia, in a breach that could aid hostile governments in persecuting them or their families, a lawmaker and former U.S. officials said.”
In 2016, the U.S. government recognized “the extraordinary contributions and sacrifices of Filipino veterans who fought for the United States during World War II” by allowing family members of elderly Filipino veterans to come to the U.S. while they wait for their green cards to be finalized so they may finally be together as a family in their final days. The Trump administration has ended the program. As Senator Mazie K. Hirono and 13 other Senate Democrats expressed in a letter to the Acting Director of USCIS, “By abruptly and cruelly terminating this program…you are breaking yet another promise to Filipino World War II veterans and denying them the relief they deserve for their service to our country.”
A recent General Accountability Report (GAO) explains that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fails to systematically identify and document veterans they encounter and does not follow existing policy to give special consideration for military service before the initiation of deportation. “[B]ecause ICE did not consistently adhere to these policies, some veterans who were removed may not have received the level of review and approval that ICE has determined is appropriate for cases involving veterans,” according to the GAO report. 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 – came home after combat with traumatic brain injury and PTSD, thereby leading to criminal convictions that result in ICE detention and initiation of deportation. Segovia, a recently deported and decorated veteran said, “I love America. I would fight for it again. I won’t turn my back on it. I really need it not to have its back turned to me.” According to NBC news, Segovia said he felt the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs had failed him, and “he was never given proper treatment for his condition and was forced to wait for help.” 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 in June.
These obstacles are not only detrimental to service members and their families, it is harming military readiness and effectiveness. The Military Times Sailor of the Year said last year, “‘Deploying in Afghanistan has its own stressors…Every morning going to work, it’s [worrying about the potential deportation of my wife and mother of our young children is] just another thing that’s on my mind. ‘Is today the day they are coming?’” He continued, “‘You can’t help who you fall in love with…She’s the person I come home to. Without that, I’d be lost.’” His wife says, “‘It’s this constant fear that someone is going to show up at your door and take you away.’”