In November 2019, a group of non-citizen veterans of the United States Military (military) celebrated Veterans Day in Mexico. Many of these individuals enlisted in the military after President George W. Bush signed an executive order fast-tracking citizenship for individuals willing to serve. However, they never officially became citizens and continue to remain vulnerable to deportation. Now, they remain in exile within the Deported Veterans Support House—a safe haven for non-citizen veterans who have been deported.
It is common for non-citizens to join the military with the expectation of receiving naturalization. In fact, since the Revolutionary War, legal permanent residents are eligible to enlist, with roughly 35,000 non-citizens serving active duty. Since October 2001, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has naturalized 129,587 members of the military. If an individual meets all of the requirements of either section 328 (One Year of Military Service During Peacetime) or section 329 (Military Service During Hostilities) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), they are eligible for naturalization. By naturalizing through military service, individuals experience shorter residency requirements, no state-of-residence requirement, and waived application fees.
Usually, if a non-citizen service member has received an honorable discharge, they are eligible for citizenship. However, this is not automatic and some veterans do not realize that they must apply for citizenship. Many veterans believe their military service automatically made them citizens. A 2016 report by the ACLU of California reported that it was not uncommon for the federal government to lose or fail to file non-citizen veterans’ applications for naturalization. Additionally, policy now requires individuals applying for citizenship to seek an authentic signature from high ranking officers (colonel or above)—and sometimes these individuals are hundreds of miles away. While military service seems like a near-certain path to naturalization, the reality is far more complicated. Based on eight quarterly reports of military naturalization rates since President Trump took office, the most recent USCIS data reports that in six of the last eight reports, civilians had a higher rate of approval for citizenship than military applicants did.
In February 2018, former Defense Secretary James Mattis told Pentagon reporters that “…anyone with an honorable discharge…will not be subject to any kind of deportation.” This does not include exceptions, such as instances where individuals have committed a serious felony or have received a federal judge’s signed deportation order. Although there are policies in place which require Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take additional steps when encountering a veteran placed in removal proceedings, a June 2019 report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, ICE failed to follow its own policies.
Despite the fact that every veteran’s case is supposed to be reviewed by a senior ICE official, the GAO report found that this was not the case in 70% of the cases they reviewed. The GAO report stated, “[ICE] has developed policies for handling cases of noncitizen veterans who may be subject to removal from the [US], but does not consistently adhere to those policies, and does not consistently identify and track such veterans.” GAO also found that from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, the number of military naturalization applications declined by 72 percent, leading to a decline in naturalization application approvals during this time. USCIC and the Department of Defense (DOD) attributed the decline in applications to several DOD policy changes which reduced the number of non-citizens joining the military—including the suspension of a program due to counterintelligence concerns and an increase in the amount of time non-citizens must serve before DOD will certify their honorable service for naturalization.
The GAO report mainly recommended that ICE adhere to policies that are already in place. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responded to a draft of the GAO report, stating that ICE would follow the guidelines on screening for veterans and elevating their case files. DHS was “pleased to note GAO’s acknowledgement that [ICE] recognizes noncitizen veterans warrant special consideration in the event that they become subject to immigration enforcement and removed from the [US].” DHS further commented that DHS and ICE prioritize “the identification and removal of criminal aliens who pose a threat to national security and public safety, such as those with prior criminal convictions.” DHS further noted that 100 percent of the veteran cases GAO reviewed involved individuals placed into removal proceedings because of felony convictions.
Although the DHS was factually correct regarding felony convictions in the GAO report, there are serious concerns about the sincerity and accuracy of the statement. In contrast with its own policies, ICE may actually be detaining and deporting non-citizen veterans without checking or documenting their service status. According to a federal watchdog group, ICE does not know how many non-citizen veterans it has deported over the last five years. This is supported by the findings of the GAO report, which shows that ICE lacks a complete record of the number of non-citizen veterans removed from the US between 2013 and 2018. Without a database tracking non-citizen veteran removals, ICE records do not reflect the circumstances surrounding each deportation. This is especially troubling because there is no way of distinguishing deportations for low-level drug offenses and those for serious or violent offenses.
In response to the GAO report, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to Acting ICE Director Mark Morgan. In this letter Takano stated, “We cannot allow non-citizen veterans to fall through the cracks of our broken immigration system.” Acknowledging the fact that the number of deported veterans remains unknown, Takano believes “…that one deported veteran is one too many.”
Not all veterans vulnerable to deportation are those convicted of crimes. Furthermore, there are instances in which the government is mistakenly seeking deportation of US citizens. Marine veteran Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, who had his US passport on him at the time of his arrest for two misdemeanor crimes, was held at an ICE detention camp for three days before being released. Despite a judge ordering for the release of Mr. Ramos-Gomez, he was transferred into the custody of ICE.
In late October of this year, Jose Segovia-Benitez, a combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps was deported to El Salvatore. He served two tours over his five-year service and was honorably discharged after suffering a brain injury in Iraq. While in the military Mr. Segovia-Benitez had applied for naturalization but was unable to complete the process due to his deployment and injury. Lawyers and supporters of Segovia-Benitez report that his criminal conduct did not begin until after he was honorably discharged. Classified as 70 percent disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for traumatic brain injury and PTSD, Mr. Segovia-Benitez’s lawyer and family believe that he did not receive adequate treatment through the VA. His repeated attempts to appeal his deportation were denied and he was deported to a country he left at the age of three.
Former Air Force Master Sergeant Jeff Merrick referred to the deportations of veterans as a “total disgrace” by the government. Despite completing criminal sentences in the US, non-citizen veterans are deported—and punished all over again. Oftentimes, deported veterans were brought to the US as children, like Mr. Segovia-Benitez, and do not have ties to the country in which they are sent to. Once removed, a veteran has a more difficult time accessing the benefits they earned while serving, such as disability or retirement pay. This is because in order to attend a hearing to appeal a VA disability rating decision, the individual has to be in the US.
In February 2019, the House of Representatives reintroduced a bill called the “Repatriate Our Patriots Act,” which would protect non-citizen veterans who were honorably discharged. Protections would not be awarded to individuals convicted of various crimes (voluntary manslaughter, murder, rape, or terrorism) or child abusers and pedophiles. This bill remains with the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. Originally introduced in 2017, the bill died in a previous session of Congress.
The bottom line is that non-citizen veterans are being deported carelessly and shamelessly within an administration eager to disregard history and policy. ICE has failed to report these deportations and continues to disregard its own policies meant to protect veterans. Deportation to unfamiliar countries without the services promised to them through the VA not only places these veterans in danger but also dishonors their service to our country.
Logan Kenney is a second-year student at Cornell Law School. After graduating from Nassau Community College in 2013 and Cornell University in 2015, Logan worked as a paralegal (at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Del Mar College) and volunteered with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. Her writing interests include psychology and the law, government, and veterans affairs.
Suggested citation: Logan Kenney, Ignoring Policy, History, and Humanity: ICE Continues to Deport Veterans, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (March 6, 2020), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/ignoring-policy-history-and-humanity-ice-continues-to-deport-veterans/.