A former Marine and Gulf War veteran may soon be boarding a flight to Jamaica -- the ticket cost picked up by the U.S. government.
But Rohan Coombs, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica as a child, is not looking forward to the return trip. He's being deported.
Coombs is not alone. By some estimates, 3,000 to 4,000 veterans are awaiting deportation, and the deportations have been going on since a 1996 law made it easier for the U.S. to boot out foreign nationals, including legal permanent residents – “green-card” holders – who served in the military if they commit crimes. Collectively, they've been dubbed "Banished Veterans" by those who say that vets – even those who have committed crimes – deserve better than to be booted from the country they served.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called the 1996 legislation "a terrible law that has very un-American consequences." He said the law is particularly unfair when it comes to veterans who arrived in the U.S. as children, who grow up not knowing any language but English and knowing only the U.S. as home.
"It seems to me they should not have the threat of deportation," Filner said. "I would say give them citizenship based on the fact they served in our armed forces. It seems a commons sense thing to me."
"I come at it from a legal, moral and ethical background," retired Army Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela, former deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, told Military.com. "If you commit a crime, you pay your dues. Having said that … if you've served your country, I think you are due a certain right, if you will, [to be allowed to stay in the United States]."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for deporting illegals, does not see it that way.
"ICE respects the service all provide to our country. However, anyone not here legally or those who have [legal permanent residence] status and commit a criminal act can be subject to removal proceedings from the U.S.," Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery, a spokesman for the agency, told Military.com in an e-mail. "ICE understands the hardship some may face, and we prioritize our cases on criminal acts. Each case is individual. As a law enforcement agency, ICE enforces the laws as they are written, not [arbitrarily]."
Craig Shagin, a Pennsylvania attorney who is representing Coombs, agrees that wearing a military uniform "doesn't give [vets] the right to violate anything. They should be punished the same as you or me."
Coombs, who arrived in the U.S. at age 9, slipped into some bad ways after he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1994, says his fiancée, Robyn Sword of Stanton, Calif. In March 2008, she said, Coombs was arrested for selling marijuana. Shagin said the charge is considered trafficking, one of the offenses ICE may use to begin deportation proceedings.
"But it's about loyalty. That's what's so infuriating to me," he told Military.com. "If we support troops because they're loyal to us, we should be loyal to them. It's a question of standing by people who are standing by us, even when they're down, when they're not perfect, even when they are bad human beings."
In many of the cases, veterans say they believed their service made them U.S. citizens, or the fact they arrived in the U.S. as children.
Since January, the rules on servicemembers becoming U.S. citizens have been amended to expedite the process, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Military members now serving, or who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, may apply immediately for citizenship. The rule extends to those who served in the selected and ready reserve, in addition to active-duty members.
For immigrants who served during peacetime, the revision rolled back the time requirement for naturalization from three years to one year, according to DHS.
Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, who testified before Congress on the issue in 2008, said the Army is taking steps to help its newest immigrant members become citizens. Under the Army program, immigrant troops will have their citizenship by the time they leave basic training, said Stock, who works on immigration policy issues for the Army.
The Navy is moving in the same direction, according to Stock, and these programs will prevent future immigrant veterans from being vulnerable to deportation.
But for those who served yet never gained citizenship, nothing has changed.
The Banished Veterans site includes stories of veterans dating back to the Vietnam War era who have been deported already or are facing deportation because of certain crimes, many of them related to drug use after they left the military.
One is former Army Spc. Rudi Robinson. Born Udo Ackermann to a German prostitute and an African-American soldier in 1955, he was adopted by the Robinsons, another African-American GI and his wife, at age 3. Robinson didn't learn that he was adopted until he was 17, just before going into the Army. He had legal problems in the Army that resulted in a court-martial, he said, but then straightened out and finished off his time with an honorable discharge.
But later troubles with drugs and petty theft resulted in jail terms and, after serving time in 2003, he was deemed deportable under the 1996 law and sent to Germany. He didn't speak the language and by then he had lived in the United States for more than 40 years. Today, Robinson operates a shelter Streetlytes, a charity he founded in 2007 that provides food, clothing and emotional support to London's homeless.
His success aside, Robinson believes it was just wrong to deport him from the only country he ever knew, depriving him of years with his children and grandchildren. His father died and he was not able to come back for the funeral. He faces the same prospect when his mother, now 89, dies.
"I don't want to come out like a victim. I'm a survivor," he said. "I turned my life around. I just want the opportunity to go back and see my kids. I would like to have my U.S. citizenship. I believe I deserved it a long time ago. I believe I should have had it when I was adopted by American parents."
Retired general Valenzuela, himself the son of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., believes the U.S. needs to re-examine the deportation cases it has made against veterans. "They should be considered to be brought back to the United States for all the rights that they have earned."
"I would say we owe it to them, we owe it to the country … to sit down on a case-by-case basis and see how we can accommodate and help them, rather than just banish them and deport them."