Former Army Spc. Hector Barajas sat at his computer in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. He logged into Facebook. He uploaded a photo of servicemembers celebrating their new U.S. citizenship in the White House Rose Garden, where they’d been sworn in.
“Interesting acknowledgment of service, loyalty and commitment to the U.S. and the change in [immigration laws] since 2001,” Barajas wrote. “What about those that have been forgotten or banished? Why do they not count?”
As pleased as he was to see the government pulling out all the stops to help foreign-born servicemembers become citizens, Barajas couldn’t help but feel down. The Mexican-born, U.S.-raised vet is among the thousands of so-called “banished veterans,” booted from the U.S. because of a law he and many others didn’t know existed until it was too late.
The 1996 law strips legal residents of their green cards and orders they be deported if they’re convicted of any number of crimes – from serious, violent felonies to possession of small amounts of marijuana – making no allowance to how long they’ve been in the U.S. or whether they’ve served in the military.
The ceremony depicted in the photos Barajas posted to his “Banished Veterans” Facebook page represents policy changes that should prevent a great many future cases of banished vets, said Navy veteran Juan Valadez, living in Juarez, Mexico, since he was deported after serving time for conspiracy to possess marijuana.
“I'm all for foreign nationals becoming U.S. citizens,” he said in an email to Military.com. “Even though it came late for me, at least the reform was made to avoid these types of situations from developing in the future.”
The new policy was launched in 2009, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began processing Army recruits’ citizenship applications the day they entered service. Now expanded to the Navy and Air Force, the program turns green card holders in military service into full citizens in about two months, says USCIS spokesman Daniel Cosgrove.
“We collect the paperwork, we do the interviews, and the recruit is able to graduate [basic training] as a U.S. citizen,” he said. Cosgrove said instances of troops not getting their citizenship before graduating are rare. And as fast as officials have made the process already – two months instead of six – they can even speed it up further if time becomes an issue.
To date, he said, about 2,400 immigrants have gained citizenship through the program, including 1,781 soldiers, 613 sailors and 14 airmen. The Marine Corps has not yet signed onto it, though CIS expects it will.
Even before fast-tracking citizenship became a basic training option, servicemembers were able to apply immediately for citizenship regardless of how long they’d been in country before joining the military. That became policy in 2002 because of the war in Afghanistan, Cosgrove said, and “while we’re still in declared hostilities anybody in the military is eligible” to do the same.
The agency estimates that about 75,000 servicemembers have become naturalized citizens since Sept. 11.
Deported veterans, for the most part, say they never knew about the policy change and simply assumed that by serving in the military, especially during wartime, they earned citizenship along with GI Bill benefits, pensions or disability compensation.
Craig Shagin, a Pennsylvania attorney who has worked on banished veteran cases, said in a video posted to Barajas’ website that until 1996, so-called resident aliens who served in the military were never deported, even if found guilty of a crime.
“Courts went out of the way to safeguard them,” he said. Shagin called the 1996 law that changed things “draconian,” subjecting immigrants to removal for a host of reasons, including aggravated felonies, domestic violence or threats of violence, and drug crimes and trafficking, including possession of small amounts of marijuana or other drugs.
“The idea that we could have people who give so much of their lives … come home to a country that says that they are going to keep their solemn pledge to veterans, and then find [these veterans] deported, is really more than can be born in silence,” Shagin said.
In one of the strangest cases, a man born to a German prostitute by an African-American soldier, subsequently adopted by another GI family and raised in America, found himself many years later, as an adult and a veteran, deported to Germany after being convicted of a crime in the U.S.
The man had never lived in Germany and did not speak German.
Barajas, who created the Banished Veterans information website and Facebook page, told Military.com in a telephone interview he is one of about eight veterans now living in Rosarito Beach, just south of San Diego. The former 82nd Airborne Division soldier now works as a caregiver at a small facility catering to retired American expatriates.
He was deported in 2003 after involvement in a shooting incident. No one was injured, he said, but he was convicted of unlawful discharge of a firearm and served time. He was in jail when he realized that the U.S. was deporting legal-resident veterans.
He says it’s not right, especially since many vets who get into trouble may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other problems related to service. Though Barajas concedes that’s no excuse for breaking the law, he believes a person’s military background and extenuating circumstances should be considered before the U.S. throws him out of the country.
“By definition, a U.S. national is someone who owes permanent allegiance to the United States,” he said. When he and others entered the military they swore that allegiance. “We’re trying to establish that since we joined the military to defend the Constitution we should be recognized as U.S. nationals” and not be subject to deportation.
That’s the argument another Army vet in Rosarito Beach argued for three years, even getting his appeal forwarded to the U.S. Supreme Court last fall.
Victor Partida, who in 2008 served a short jail term for grand theft in California, was hoping the high court would rule that when he swore allegiance to the U.S. as a soldier, he effectively became an American national, and therefore a citizen.
But the court declined to hear the Partida’s case and last month, a few nights before Christmas, he was arrested on warrant by immigration officials in Los Angeles, processed, whisked to the border and dropped off in Mexico.
“I was outside in my car, ready to go pick up my girlfriend. They pulled me out,” he said in a telephone interview. “Without a word or a chance to talk to anybody, they took me to the border.”
Valadez, the Navy veteran, said he continues to look for “any options that might open so that I could become a [U.S.] citizen. I don't think I can ever give that up.”
He had come to the U.S. with his family at age 11, did JROTC throughout high school and then joined the service, he said. His crime, for which he served 28 months, was conspiracy to possess marijuana, admitting he played a small part in someone else’s plan to traffic in the illegal weed.
“I also know a lot of people are going to judge me on [my criminal record], but they won’t see all the good things I did beside that,” he wrote in his email. “My military record speaks for itself. I still have all my evals that prove I was a good sailor.”