Miguel Perez Jr. is back but thousands of deported veterans remain ‘in exile’

For years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has failed to follow its own policies by deporting veterans who may be eligible for citizenship.

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Last weeks’ citizenship ceremony for Miguel Perez Jr. represented a victory for the persistence of Perez and his family, but also for a band of brothers and sisters who came together to advocate on his behalf – and who continue to press for fairness and humane treatment for veterans who are caught up in immigration proceedings, including thousands of veterans living “in exile.”

Perez was the second veteran to gain citizenship after being deported following criminal convictions that, advocates argue, reflected a rough transition to civilian life. U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas, who organized a support center for deported vets living in Tijuana, was granted citizenship in March 2018 – 14 years after being deported.

Perez’s repatriation took only a year and a half, a small sign of progress, said Carlos Luna, president of Green Card Veterans. Both Perez and Barazas regained eligibility for citizenship after their governors issued pardons wiping out criminal convictions.

Luna and other veterans and veterans’ advocates working on a restorative justice program for vets in Cook County Jail heard about Perez’s case and decided they had to help out, he said. Out of that effort grew the Green Card Veterans, organized as a chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a 90-year-old civil rights group.

After Perez was dumped without warning by immigration authorities and left “basically homeless” in a zone declared unsafe for U.S. tourists by the State Department, members of the new group went to Mexico to help him resettle in Tijuana, where deported vets have established support networks.

They also took up the broader issue of the deportation of veterans. Green Card Veterans seeks to change the narrative around the issue – for one thing, to frame it not as an immigration issue but as a veterans’ issue, Luna said. There’s a lot of ignorance on the subject, he said, including a common belief that the veterans being deported are “illegal immigrants.” They are generally lawful permanent residents whose status was challenged after brushes with the criminal justice system.

The group views veteran deportation as “an extension of veteran incarceration,” Luna said, noting that veterans are incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of the general population, in many cases due to untreated mental health issues resulting from their military service.

“We don’t condone criminal activity, but we have systems to hold people accountable,” Luna said. After someone has done time in jail or prison, “what purpose is served by deporting them?” – particularly considering their service to the nation, he asks. In fact the Universal Declaration of Human Rights bans subjecting individuals to exile, which is the term Luna uses for these actions.

Green Card Veterans is currently advocating on behalf of a 15-year member of the U.S. Navy, himself a citizen, living in San Diego with a severely disabled child, whose wife faces deportation proceedings. The Navy refused to submit a hardship letter in that case saying it would be “contrary to the president’s policies,” according to Luna.

The group is also calling for the release of Jose Segovia, an Iraq War veteran now being held in a detention center in California, and recently backed the successful effort to win the release of Edgar Baltazar Garcia, another Iraq War veteran who was held in detention in Texas and is now working toward gaining citizenship.

Meanwhile in Iowa, Manuel Valenzuela, a Marine veteran from Colorado and one of four brothers who served in Vietnam, has been buttonholing presidential candidates seeking pledges to end the deportation of veterans. Valenzuela and one of his brothers, a Bronze Star recipient, have been fighting deportation for ten years.

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And with immigration enforcement being ramped up, and an unknown number of veterans forced from the country over the years (the Congressional Hispanic Caucus estimates the number at 3,000), much more needs to be done, both in changing policies and enacting new legislation, Luna said.

Indeed, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has policies requiring special considerations for veterans but does not consistently follow them. The GAO found that a 2004 policy requiring consideration of military service, evidence of rehabilitation, family ties, employment history and other factors had been ignored in 21% of the cases of deported vets that it studied, and 2015 policy requiring ICE headquarters review of an assessment of potential citizenship was ignored in 70% of cases.

In fact, Homeland Security Investigation officials told the GAO that “they do not distinguish between veterans and nonveterans” in conducting investigations and deciding whether to initiate removal proceedings – even though ICE policy clearly requires them to do so.

The GAO also found that approvals of applications for citizenship by service members dropped precipitously between 2017 and 2018, after the Trump administration increased bureaucratic requirements for legal permanent residents in the military to apply for citizenship and shut down the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative.

The facts uncovered by the GAO “confirm deliberate and cruel actions against men and women who served bravely defending our country,” said Domingo Garcia, LULAC’s national president. “It just goes to show the lack of regard for the rights guaranteed under the Constitution including a fair legal system under this administration.”

LULAC has called on the government to immediately terminate current deportation proceedings against veterans, review the cases of veterans who have been deported, and begin the process of repatriation.

The failure of ICE to follow its own policies shows the need for corrective legislation, said Luna. Among many bills that have been proposed, Sen. Tammy Duckworth has re-introduced the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, which would prohibit the deportation of veterans who are not violent offenders and establish a visa program to allow veterans who have already been deported to re-enter as legal permanent residents.

That legislation didn’t get far in the previous Congress, and Luna recognizes that passing it today is an uphill battle. But the movement for justice for green card veterans is gaining momentum – and the return of Miguel Perez only advances it further.

Correction: This post was updated to reflect that Edgar Baltazar Garcia won release from detention.