A Permanent Resident, Veteran Faces Deportation

Neuris Richard Feliz, 29, a former power-generation specialist for the U.S. Army, lives in a small apartment above a Lancaster storefront.

In the dining room sits his photo in green uniform, against the backdrop of an American flag. On a shelf, a horse-head profile on the yellow shield of his First Cavalry Division.

Buried in a closet are the pictures Feliz hides -- corpses shredded by Iraqi roadside bombs; forward-operating-base ceremonies for fallen comrades whose lives were memorialized with Battlefield Crosses made from their helmets, boots, and rifles.

Now, almost a decade after a dangerous year under mortar fire, after receiving medals for "good conduct," "national defense service," and the "global war on terrorism," Feliz is to be deported for beating a man with an ax handle and serving three years in prison.

That puts him among a small category of men and women who served America as permanent legal residents, not U.S. citizens, and committed crimes upon returning from the front, or in civilian life.

Their situation is part of a dramatic spike in deportations under President Obama -- a record 1.5 million people in his first term. Estimates put the number of "banished vets" -- barred permanently from the United States -- at several hundred to around 3,000.

Their plight is hardly noticed in the brittle brawl over immigration reform, as politicians who defend our troops are less inclined to go to bat for them after convictions.

Legislation to protect vets from deportation was presented to Congress recently by Rep. Mike Thompson (D., Calif.), a wounded-in-combat Vietnam vet, and Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. An effort to attach it to the defense spending bill was rejected.

Craig Shagin, a Harrisburg lawyer, author of "Deporting Private Ryan: The Less Than Honorable Condition of the Non-Citizen in the United States Armed Forces," a 2007 Widener Law Journal article, is a foremost defender of banished vets.

Noncitizen service members are "subject to American command, American discipline," and, if captured, are American prisoners of war, Shagin said in a recent interview. For those reasons, he said, it is unjust to demand a citizen's loyalty from green-card vets only to "throw them under the bus as discardable aliens" when their uniforms come off.

Lawbreakers should be punished, including imprisonment when appropriate, he said. Banishment is too high a price.

Shagin said almost no vets who served in wartime were deported until Congress enacted the 1996 amendments that bar immigration judges from granting most discretionary relief. Before 1996, judges could hear the circumstances of a case and grant mercy.

The amendments also created a special definition of "aggravated felony." Any violation that produces a sentence of a year or more in prison is an aggravated felony for immigration purposes, even if it is a lesser offense, like a misdemeanor, in the state where it was adjudicated.

Military service can be a fast track to U.S. citizenship. About 90,000 soldiers have gotten citizenship that way since 2001, officials say. But for green-card holders who fail to naturalize, banishment is a bar.

Many offenses that can lead to deportation are common in vets dealing with post-traumatic stress, including outbursts and substance abuse.

Feliz, who said he binged on rum and beer after redeploying to Fort Hood, Texas, in 2005, seems to fit the PTSD profile, although he was never diagnosed.

Born in the Dominican Republic, raised in Puerto Rico until 15, Feliz moved to Lancaster to live with an aunt and graduated from high school in 2002.

Six months later, he enlisted and went to Fort Knox, Ky., for training. He loved the Army, he said in an interview, because it gave him purpose.

According to Feliz, he was 21 when he returned from Iraq, met a woman near Fort Hood and began a yearlong relationship. She was five years his senior and had a 2-year-old son. The affair was volatile, Feliz said, but he was "very possessive because I couldn't be alone."

One night, he went to her house and found a man in his 40s waiting, he said.

The men argued and Feliz retrieved the ax handle from his car and hit the man four times in the lower legs. Then he drove to a strip club and drank.

Police went to Feliz's house that night, he said, and he gave them the ax handle. A few days later, he was arrested.

Seven weeks later, represented by a court-appointed lawyer, Feliz pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing bodily harm.

In a statement presented to the sentencing judge, the victim described "bruises, swelling, and soreness to both legs" that caused him to miss two days of work.

Paul McWilliams, the Bell County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, said he believed Feliz was warned that pleading guilty could affect his immigration status.

Facing a possible two to 20 years in prison, Feliz was sentenced to five. He was discharged from the Army under honorable conditions but his record noted "misconduct" for the conviction.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which recommends deportations, said the agency was "very deliberate in our review of cases involving veterans."

Spokesman Khaalid Walls also said removal of an immigrant with military service must be authorized by the senior leaders of a field office and that ICE had "prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country."

In a handwritten note to his superiors contained in Feliz's Army file, he asked not to be separated, citing his "excellent and credible career" in the Army. He acknowledged "the gravity" of the assault, and pleaded for "another way out . . . of this tragedy I'm living."

Looking back now from his apartment in Lancaster, he said: "I had all these problems, but I didn't know it at the time."

He attributes his eventual self-awareness to a prison class on psychotherapy and time to reflect during three years behind bars.

Paroled in 2009, he returned to his aunt's house and spent four months seeking a job before landing one as a mechanic. His parole ended in May 2011.

Seven months later, permitted again to travel, he took his Dominican passport and U.S. green card and flew to visit family in the Dominican Republic.

His next stop was Puerto Rico to see his mother. When he tried to enter the U.S. protectorate, border agents confronted him with proof of his conviction, which bars entry to the United States.

Instead of jailing Feliz, agents exercised discretion and gave him a summons, which required him to report to immigration court in Philadelphia in April 2012.

That's when Lancaster immigration lawyer Troy Mattes joined the case.

Mattes' first move was to seek citizenship for Feliz. After he was interviewed last month at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in West Philadelphia, his application was denied.

On Nov. 27, Feliz is due in immigration court in Center City, where Mattes will target the Texas penal code, arguing that its definition of assault does not accord with the definition of aggravated felony under immigration law.

Trial counsel for ICE will represent the government's case for deportation.

Feliz "served our country in time of war," Mattes said, "fighting for the freedoms we enjoy back home. That should at the very least permit him the opportunity to remain in this country. I think he has earned the chance."

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