A Vietnam combat veteran who lives under threat of deportation criticized President Barack Obama on Tuesday for ignoring the plight of "banished" veterans while pushing for immigration reform for undocumented aliens in the U.S.
"I just think he will continue to ignore us," said Manuel Valenzuela, a Marine veteran. "We got a president that has no backbone. That's really unfortunate – a commander-in-chief with no backbone."
Obama, flanked by labor, business, and civic leaders, gathered in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday to promote the Dream Act, an immigration bill now before the Senate that would give a path to citizenship to people who were brought into the United States as children.
Valenzuela's brother Valente is an Army veteran who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne. Both men regularly attend rallies to draw attention to the deportation of veterans. In February, an official for Immigration and Customs Enforcement that the Valenzuelas had been removed from deportation proceedings, but it apparently is not that simple.
John Valadez, a filmmaker working on "American Exiles," a documentary about the brothers for PBS, said they men remain in "administrative clearing."
"This means ICE is not actively seeking their deportation at this moment, but they reserve the right to seek their deportation at any time and do not need any additional reason or justification to do so," Valadez said. "They are in a kind of deportation limbo."
Consequences of that "limbo" played out at the U.S.-Mexican border little more than a week ago, according to Valadez, who was taking Valente Valenzuela from Mexico to an appointment with immigration officials in Denver, Colo. The Army veteran had lost his wallet in Mexico and so applied for a new green card, paying $250 in fees, Valadez said.
When they arrived at the border, however, customs agents rejected the application and appointment paperwork Valenzuela carried with him and took him into custody for trying to enter the U.S. illegally, Valadez said. The veteran was put in shackles at one point and taken into a room for interrogation, Valadez said. The agents finally let him go after more than six hours, saying he had to pay $500 for fees or processing --- it was not exactly clear what it was for, according to Valadez.
The filmmaker said he paid the $500.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not talk specifically about Valenzuela’s experience but confirmed in an email that legal permanent residents coming into the U.S. without the proper documents are “restrained” while their information is checked. If they are cleared they can enter the U.S. on a passport or visa waiver, which carries a "filing fee" of $585, a CBP spokesman said in an email.
Valenzuela said he is not opposed to the Dream Act, but believes the President and Congress should be looking out for those who served in the U.S. military and fought its wars over the years. A law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 stipulates that legal residents convicted of even minor crimes will have their "green card" pulled and be deported.
Manuel has prior convictions of drunk driving and, separately, for resisting arrest after he refused to leave a bar that was closing. Valente has a prior arrest for domestic abuse.
There are provisions permitting Immigration and Customs Enforcement to exercise some leeway in deportations of veterans, but activists and attorneys who have represented veterans have say it appears to be ignored.
"I don't have any evidence that they are lightening up," Alaska attorney Margaret Stock told Military.com on Tuesday. Judges "say they are applying the law, and the law requires them to order people deported, even if those people are veterans."
No one knows how many veterans have been deported because ICE does not track that information. Craig Shagin, a Pennsylvania attorney who has handled a number of cases, said the number is probably in the thousands. Many are deported to Mexico and other Latin American countries, but they are also deported to Asian and European countries.
Valenzuela's disappointment in Obama also stems from a brief encounter with him in July 2011 after the President spoke before a gathering of the National Council of La Raza gathering in Washington, D.C. He said he shook Obama's hand as he was on his way out but that Obama paused briefly to watch as he unfurled a banner calling for a halt to deportation of veterans.
According to Valenzuela, Secret Service agents even helped him unfold the banner at the direction of Obama, who shook his head sympathetically as he read the message and told the agents to take Valenzuela's contact information.
Valenzuela said he never heard back from the White House. "He was there [at La Raza] looking for Latino votes," Valenzuela said on Tuesday.
The White House offered no comment on the deportation of veterans when contacted for this story, but referred Military.com to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement. DHS did not respond.
Editor's note: This story originally reported that ICE did not respond to Military.com’s request for an explanation or comment on Valente Valenzuela’s treatment at the border. An ICE spokeswoman later said that agency is not responsible for border entry.