A Jamaica-born Vietnam veteran being held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona awaiting deportation has been on a hunger strike for the past week in an attempt to gain his release and remain in the U.S.
John E. Ferron entered the U.S. at 16 in 1972, was ordered deported in 1974 but never left, and in late 1974 enlisted in the Navy under an alias: Clyde Anthony Steele. Housed in the Eloy center since finishing a three-year jail term in 2011 for identity theft, Ferron says he wants to remain in the U.S. and be made a naturalized citizen, a path that can be open even to illegal aliens if they served honorably.
"I am in this all the way." he said recently. "And if it so happens that I die then I guess that's just the way it is. But I'm not going to be deported. They're trying to deport me to a country I haven't been to in 43 years. I don't know family there. I don't know anything about it. [If] I step off the plane there I don't know which way to turn."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials earlier confirmed Ferron is on a hunger strike but say he is not under immediate threat of removal. Virginia Kice, ICE Western Regional Communications Director, said Ferron's petition with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of the order was granted in January and remains in effect.
Marjorie King, a volunteer with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, has championed Ferron's case since meeting him about 18 months ago, but said she cannot support his hunger strike action.
"My husband and I have supported him for 18 months," King told facility warden Charles DeRosa in a June 26 email. "We have attempted to contact shelters in Jamaica on his behalf. However, we feel that the act of a hunger strike will not achieve his desired goal of gaining public attention and support. Nor will his action lead to his ultimate release from detention."
Ferron initially was placed in isolation, though Eloy officials allowed him access to a phone to speak with Military.com. He has since been moved to the medical observation wing, where there are other detainees, according to ICE spokeswoman Amber Cargile.
Having served a prison sentence for his crimes, Ferron believes that his honorary service in the Navy should allow him to remain in the U.S. as a citizen. Ferron said he served as an Underwater Demolition Team member in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs in 2000 awarded him a disability – under his own name – for a head injury and PTSD.
Advocates for veterans detained by ICE say the U.S. has been very aggressive in deporting them, regardless of honorable service and even if their convictions were for minor offense.
And Ferron's crimes were not minor. He continued to use the Steele name as late as 2005-2006. His conviction in 2008 on Social Security fraud, passport fraud, identity theft and aggravated identity theft not only got him three years in jail but resulted in the VA stripping him of his benefits after the Navy said it would no longer recognize his service.
King concedes that Ferron is not a sympathetic case because he has had multiple run-ins with the law, though she believes much of that may be attributed to mental illness related to the head-trauma and PTSD.
"I am heart stricken for John," King wrote in an email to other supporters of detained immigrants. "I pray that he realize he will not be forgotten, even if we cannot change his situation."