The Department of Homeland Security announced a new policy that aims to ensure that its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division actually follows its promise to consider military service when deciding to deport retired service members, a press release announced Tuesday.
"Prior to the implementation of this directive, ICE has long recognized U.S. military service as a mitigating factor that is highly relevant in making case-by-case enforcement decisions," the department said in its announcement.
Despite that claim, there are numerous examples in recent years where the policy seems to have not been followed or not made a difference, leading to the deportation of veterans -- including those who served in combat.
A 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that "ICE did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans who were placed in removal proceedings from fiscal years 2013 through 2018." The report also faulted the agency for not having a policy to identify and document all military veterans it comes across and noted that "in cases when agents and officers do learn they have encountered a veteran, ICE does not maintain complete electronic data."
The watchdog report found that, between 2013 and 2018, 250 noncitizen veterans were placed in removal proceedings; 92 ended up being deported.
The problem is so prevalent that a support house -- the Deported Veterans Support House -- popped up in Tijuana, Mexico, to give deported veterans a place to land, regroup and access resources. It is run by Hector Barajas, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne who was deported in 2004.
For example, NPR profiled Miguel Pérez Jr., a Mexican immigrant who grew up in Chicago and served two tours in Afghanistan with the Army. He returned with PTSD and turned to drugs to help him cope, which in turn led to a drug conviction and seven years in prison.
Despite his service and struggles with mental health, Perez was deported in 2018 and lived near Tijuana until he was pardoned by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker in 2019 and got his citizenship.
Now, the new policy states that "a noncitizen's U.S. military service, or the active duty U.S. military service of a noncitizen's immediate family member(s), is a significant mitigating factor that must be considered when deciding whether to take civil immigration enforcement action."
The policy also notes that agents should not start deportation proceedings against people whose military service has made them eligible for citizenship.
An easier pathway to citizenship through military service was created by a post-9/11 executive order from the Bush administration, signed in 2002, that expedited requests for active-duty troops. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says that, since that time, "more than 148,000 members of the U.S. military" have been naturalized. Yet in the following years, the number of service members who successfully naturalized has varied, seemingly mirroring White House immigration directives. During the Trump administration, for example, federal data shows that naturalization numbers fell by nearly half.
Trump-era immigration policies removed some of the protections that active-duty service members enjoyed, made it harder to meet naturalization requirements, and made it more difficult for immigrants to enlist as well.
The end of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program in September 2017 also contributed to a decrease in military naturalizations, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In 2021, the number of servicemembers approved for naturalization shot up to 8,800 -- almost double from the year before. The data shows that the Philippines, Mexico and Jamaica were the top countries of origin over the last five years and that soldiers in the Army accounted for almost two-thirds of all the naturalizations.
"ICE values the incredible contributions of noncitizens who have served in the U.S. military," ICE's Acting Director, Tae Johnson, said in the statement.
The announcement highlighted the fact that the new policy will create "training, tracking, and reporting requirements for program offices" and requires that ICE develop a system to collect and maintain data on noncitizen veterans it encounters.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.