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On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship held a hearing on the impact of current immigration policies on service members and veterans, and their families. One witness, Margaret Stock, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and immigration attorney said, “The last three years have witnessed the administration using internal memos to undermine long-standing laws in an effort to stop immigrants from joining the military, stalling their naturalization when they do join and preventing them from continuing to serve.” She explained that these “new policies hide behind false national security rationales to conceal xenophobic motives. They also represent broken promises made to those who would put their lives on the line for the United States.”
Jennie Pasquarella, Director of Immigrants’ Rights at ACLU of California, explained in her testimony, “Going back more than 200 years, Congress began incentivizing non-citizens to join the military by rewarding them with an expedited path to citizenship. The promise of citizenship is not just an important recruitment tool, it is a moral imperative embedded in our history, values, and laws.” Pasquarella continued, “The message has been unequivocal: If you are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for this country, we will give you citizenship.”
Pasquarella explained “…[D]ue to sweeping changes in immigration laws in 1996…and increasingly draconian immigration enforcement policies, we have shamefully turned our backs on immigrants’ service and permanently banished thousands, if not tens of thousands, of veterans from the country.” Specifically, she referred to the recent cases regarding deported veterans such Jose Segovia, a veteran who was deported to El Salvador this October. Pasquarella highlighted, “Struggles with reintegration into civilian life following discharge from service are all too common for citizens and noncitizens alike. Substance abuse, mental health issues, and anger can lead to contact with the criminal justice system.” After these veterans serve their time, they are prohibited from receiving most forms of relief, and are often deported without exception. Pasquarella said, “But the worst punishment of all is the lifetime of banishment that the law requires on account of a person’s criminal conviction. For the veterans we interviewed, deportation is experienced as an ongoing life sentence for the crime committed—an excessive penalty that does not fit the crime—because to them home is in the United States.”
Hector Barajas-Varela, a veteran and Director and Founder of Deported Veterans Support House, recounted in emotional oral testimony before the committee the devastating consequences of his deportation on him, his family, and others like him, especially after devoting so much to the U.S. military. He explained, “Under today’s laws most deported veterans only come home to America with an American flag draped around their casket, like Enrique Salas and Jose Lopez. There is no honor in bringing veterans home to be recognized or thanked for their service only when they die.” In his written testimony Barajas-Varela explained, “For veterans, deportation is double punishment” and noted the myriad difficulties in living away from family and veteran support systems:
Once deported, veterans are still eligible for VA benefits and services but living abroad limits our ability to access them. For instance, deported veterans cannot receive comprehensive health care because they live abroad. While living in Tijuana, I could only request reimbursement through the Foreign Medical Program for the treatment of service-connected conditions. As deported veterans, we are eligible for the same VA benefits and services as any other veteran, but we face limited access.
We also face very personal challenges. My friend Roberto Salazar, a former U.S. Marine in the mid-1990s, was deported in 2005. Today, he runs a men’s drug rehab shelter in Tijuana. Roberto’s daughter joined the U.S. Marine Corps. His family continued to serve after his deportation. She was a lively and inspiring young woman, but she passed away in an accident in 2017. We held a funeral service and burial in Tijuana, since Roberto was unable to go to San Diego to bury his daughter.