He Served His Country. In Return, His Country Sent Him into Exile.

A U.S. Status of Forces Agreement personnel holds the U.S. flag during a naturalization ceremony hosted at the Camp Foster Community Center on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 18, 2022.
A U.S. Status of Forces Agreement personnel holds the U.S. flag during a naturalization ceremony hosted at the Camp Foster Community Center on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 18, 2022. (Lance Cpl. Jonathan Beauchamp/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

At 17, Rudi Richardson took a friend’s car for a joyride, crashed it into the side of a parked car, and landed himself in court. It was Southern California in the 1970s. Richardson’s probation officer told him he had a choice: The court could pursue the joyriding charge. Or Richardson could go into the Army.

Richardson’s parents, who had adopted him from Germany when he was a small child, thought the Army sounded like a good idea. His father was a career Army man. Richardson’s biological father had been in the Army too, serving in Europe after World War II—although Richardson didn’t know it at the time.

After serving at Fort Benning, Georgia, and then deploying to Germany, Richardson was discharged honorably in 1976. He landed a job at a federal shipyard in California.

One day, Richardson learned that some of his hiring paperwork was missing. The shipyard needed him to show proof of citizenship for his federal employment.

“I ran to the personnel office,” he said.

When he got there, he told them he didn’t have paperwork, but he was an Army veteran. That made him a citizen automatically, he said. Or so the Army recruiter had told him.

That, Richardson said later, “was a goddamn lie.”

Without his paperwork, the shipyard fired him. When he went to collect his final paycheck, he says he was told to wait outside—he was no longer allowed to set foot on federal property.

“That’s when my spirit broke,” Richardson said. “I felt small. I felt betrayed by my country.”

That betrayal would derail his life, sending him into exile in Germany, a Black man adrift in a mostly white nation, an American in a country he barely knew. He would wait decades for a phone call telling him he could come home, a phone call that came just last week. It was too late.

Biden’s Promise

The military has relied for centuries on people born outside of the U.S. to fill its ranks. But there is no guaranteed path to citizenship for noncitizen immigrants who join the military. Veterans interviewed by The War Horse said that, like Richardson, they had been told by recruiters their service would automatically confer citizenship.

Advocates say that’s a common experience. Livier Lazaro, the commander of VFW post 7420, near the U.S.-Mexico border, recounted taking two recruiters on a tour of the post, and asking them how they helped immigrant enlistees get citizenship.

“They looked at each other and said, ‘Isn’t it automatic?’”

The Department of Defense did not respond to request for comment about whether recruiters receive training on this topic.

Under current immigration law, military members are eligible to apply for citizenship after a year of honorable service. During times of war, they become eligible to apply immediately upon joining, a provision that has been in place since Sept. 11, 2001. But there is no guarantee that their applications will be granted.

As a result, enlistees sometimes leave the military without being citizens of the nation they served. For those who later get caught up in the immigration system, there is little recourse. For years, immigration officers were not required to consider veteran status in deportation proceedings, and no mechanisms were in place to track military service. In 2004, ICE updated its guidance, directing agents to consider factors related to military service in deportation proceedings. But a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the policy was not consistently applied and that ICE had no protocol for identifying veterans.

advocate for deported veterans
FILE - This Feb. 13, 2017, file photo shows the tattoo on the right arm of U.S. veteran Hector Barajas, who was deported, as he sits in his office at the Deported Veterans Support House, nicknamed "the bunker" in Tijuana, Mexico. Barajas, a former paratrooper who was born in Zacatecas state, crossed illegally into the United States at age 7 and served in the Army from 1995 to 2001. Barajas is prominent advocate for deported veterans. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

No one knows how many veterans have been deported over the years. Some estimates put it in the hundreds; others in the thousands or even tens of thousands. Often, veterans are lawful permanent residents who are deported after being convicted of and serving time for a crime, which advocates argue amounts to double punishment. Many were deported following criminal code revisions in the ’80s and ’90s that expanded the crimes that triggered deportation proceedings; some veterans with convictions on their records even became retroactively subject to deportation.

In 2019, at an event in Nevada for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, a Marine Corps veteran asked the candidate if he would stop the deportation of U.S. military veterans.

Biden promised that he would. “Anybody who has fought for the United States of America should not be in a position to be deported,” he responded. The crowd erupted in cheers.

In July 2021, Biden seemed to make good on his promise. The Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, announced the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative, which established a team within the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to reviewing reentry requests from deported veterans and their family members, and making recommendations to ICE. Subsequent department memos have also stipulated that ICE should consider military service a mitigating factor in deportation decisions—though they have not mandated any specific actions.

Jonathan Contreras, an equal justice fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has worked extensively on the issue of deported veterans, said that the initiative has sped up the processing of visa requests from veterans substantially. “Before ... it would take years to bring back one veteran in the best cases,” said Contreras. “Even that was groundbreaking.” Today, he said, he is seeing decisions in three to six months.

Since its launch began two and a half years ago, at least 102 veterans have returned to the United States under the initiative, according to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

But many more remain banished from the country they served.

James Smith, a Marine Corps veteran who helps run the volunteer group Black Deported Veterans of America, which works with deported veterans who are navigating claims for repatriation, said he wants to see more veterans coming home.

“You sit back and you go, ‘But what about all the others that are still there?’”

Deported and the Police Are Waiting

Richardson did not find out he was not an American citizen until he was arrested as a teenager. He didn’t even know he was adopted—his parents told him he was born in Hollywood.

But after his arrest, the story came spilling out. Richardson in fact was born inside a women’s prison in a small town in southern Germany. His biological mother was a German sex worker, his father an American GI. But his adoptive parents had never filed the paperwork to get him citizenship.

In the decades after World War II, tens of thousands of babies were born to European women, fathered by American soldiers—but the U.S. typically did not grant them citizenship. In the case of Black soldiers, like Richardson’s father, the Army often intentionally transferred them far away from their children.

Richardson had struggled with addiction on and off since he was a teenager. But at the shipyard, he felt like he was getting himself on track. The job was stable, the money was good. He had a young daughter with his girlfriend, and he was excited to get married.

In the months, and then the years and decades that followed his firing, he drifted from job to job. His relationship with his partner grew rocky, and his drug abuse worsened. He struggled with depression and mood swings; decades later he would receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Richardson started stealing to support his crack habit, racking up a string of petty theft charges, cycling in and out of rehab and prison, he told The War Horse. In 2003, he ended up at Terminal Island, a notorious immigration detention center. His petty thefts had piled up, which under California law brings harsher penalties, and he had a “strong-armed” robbery conviction on his record. An immigration judge ruled that he would be deported to Germany, the land of his birth.

Richardson was 46 when he was sent back. He knew only a few phrases of German.

When the plane landed in Frankfurt, the loudspeaker came on.

“Rudi Richardson, please report to the front of the plane,” a voice said. He walked up the aisle toward four policemen who were waiting for him.

Humanitarian Parole

When the federal initiative to bring eligible deported veterans back was announced, it promised a “rigorous, systematic approach” to reviewing applicants’ cases. But advocates and veterans who have been deported say that the government has done little to identify deported veterans and find out where they are, or to guide them through the process of repatriation.

Even when veterans who were deported return to the United States, most do not end up on a path to citizenship or permanent residency. Instead, they are admitted under “humanitarian parole,” a temporary immigration status given for a specific need, like medical care or a family visit, which typically is granted for only one year. A Department of Homeland Security official declined to state exactly how many of the 102 veterans who have returned under the military and veterans initiative have since become citizens, but said that it was “over 30.” The department declined to comment on how many deported veterans the department knows of who are currently still in other countries.

In a statement to The War Horse, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said, “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to treating all veterans humanely and with dignity by helping them access the benefits and services they have earned. DHS, together with the Department of Veterans Affairs, will continue to support these veterans as they seek assistance in the United States.”

Volunteer organizations, many of them staffed with veterans, are tracking close to 400 deported veterans abroad. These advocates say the department relies heavily on their efforts, without sharing resources, costs, or sometimes even basic information.

“When [the initiative] was established, there was no grants, no money for any of the nonprofits who are out there doing the groundwork finding and contacting these veterans,” said Danitza James, who helps run the volunteer group Repatriate Our Patriots. “We’re doing the outreach.”

James said groups like hers do the arduous, expensive work of searching for, identifying, and contacting veterans abroad, educating them about the initiative, helping them gather the immigration documents, the medical records, and the military paperwork they’ll need to make a claim. They connect veterans with VA benefits, put them in touch with lawyers, and help them navigate the byzantine bureaucracy at the intersection of American politics and the politics of whatever country they’ve found themselves in. Then they try to keep the veterans’ spirits lifted, to keep their paperwork moving forward, to keep them from slipping away like ghosts.

‘Guys Like Me’

The spreadsheet James keeps of the veterans they are tracking is littered with notes:

“Might be citizen?”

“Needs parole.”

“Pending deportation.”

And for some veterans, reached too late:

“Case Status: Closed (deceased).”

James’ group relies on donations and a $10,000 grant they received last year, which James said she is stretching as thinly as possible. Instead of help from the federal government, she has Nick Paz, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who sold everything he owned in 2018 and, stung by the plight of veterans deported from the country they served, moved to Mexico to look for a way to help.

'If we don’t have something guaranteed in place, we will have another group of deported veterans.'

“In both [Iraq and Afghanistan], it didn’t matter where you’re from—the amount of love we had for each other,” he said. He is haunted by friends who didn’t make it home, he said, by the scent of Simple Green, which he used to clean up after IED explosions.

Both of Paz’s grandmothers came from Mexico, and he thinks of them when he thinks about migrants working their way north, trying for a better life. But he thinks of himself when he thinks of deported veterans, guys who served like he did, guys who grew up listening to Wu Tang Clan, who care about how the New York Jets or the Oakland A’s are doing.

“When I think of deported veterans, all I have to do is put up a mirror,” Paz said. “They’re a reflection of me.”

He spends much of the year on the road, hopping between cities in Latin America: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; San Salvador, El Salvador; Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. All of it comes out of the group’s strained budget.

“Nick,” James jokes with Paz when he’s on the road, “Don’t eat two tacos. Only eat one. Okay? Because we only got money for one taco.”

Paz hears rumors of deported veterans who need help, and he works to track them down—men who grew up in St. Louis, in Chicago, men who now make just five or 10 bucks a day harvesting sugar cane or laying concrete.  He adds their names to James’ spreadsheet.

Some veterans don’t know how to apply from afar for their VA benefits. Some are afraid to leave their houses: They tell him they’ve been targeted for violence, or that they have refused offers to put their military skills to work for the cartels or other criminal organizations.

Paz says most veterans he meets with are struggling. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress or other mental health conditions. Almost everywhere he goes, Paz says, veterans talk of suicide.

They receive no support. They can’t access the VA health care they earned with their service. They don’t know that the government they swore to protect and defend has said that maybe they can come home. No one bothered to find them and tell them, until Paz showed up.

A Sense of Belonging

Richardson was stunned to see the police officers waiting for him when he got to Germany. They accompanied him to a small office. There, they asked him to tell them about any crimes he had committed in the United States, he said. Then, he added, he was taken to a shelter of some sort and assigned a bed. The place was run down, he said, in a trailer with other addicts.

Veterans cross the border, moving from non-U.S. soil to U.S. soil, from being a deported veteran to being a homeless veteran.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Richardson said. “So the first night, I just got up and left. I said, ‘I’d rather be on the fucking streets.’”

The next day, he asked the German social services agency for help finding a job. But the man he talked to told him that because he didn’t speak German, finding employment would be tough. His anxiety deepened, and not long after he had a mental breakdown, landing in a hospital in Berlin, and then in a Salvation Army shelter, where he stayed for eight months.

Eventually, Richardson made his way to England, where he knew the language and his skin color didn’t make him feel as isolated. In time, he got clean and founded a charity called Streetlytes, which provides hot meals and a place to gather for unhoused people, people with addiction, and other vulnerable people in West London, a place where they feel like they’re part of something.

“They get a sense of belonging,” he said. “That’s a precious commodity.”

When veterans are granted humanitarian parole, volunteer groups raise money to help them pay for flights back to the country they fought for. They work to find housing—sometimes it comes through and sometimes it doesn’t. Veterans cross the border, moving from non-U.S. soil to U.S. soil, from being a deported veteran to being a homeless veteran.  The work permits that could help pay for rent can take months to be approved—and sometimes even longer than the veterans’ year-long parole.

Volunteers try to help those returning through whatever roadblocks and blunders inevitably arise. Smith said that one veteran, who was granted a visa to return to the United States from Kenya, needed to put the American address of a sponsor on an immigration form, so Smith let the veteran use his address. But when Smith tried to help him connect with VA housing resources, he said, the counselor told him the veteran wasn’t eligible for benefits.

“They were like, ‘No, he’s not currently unhoused, because here on the paperwork it says he’s staying at this address.’ I’m like, ‘That’s my address,’” Smith said. The VA, he said, has “no protocols to follow.”

In a statement to The War Horse, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said that VA case managers help veterans transition to appropriate care in the system. He added, “VA is proud to fight for all Veterans, and we will continue our work to integrate IMMVI throughout the Department to ensure that non-citizen Veterans receive the care and benefits they deserve.”

‘One Last Rodeo’

In 2022, while Richardson was living in England, he worked with Smith and two fellow deported veterans to found the group Black Deported Veterans of America. The goal at first was to share resources among Black veterans who had been deported, since much of the attention to the issue focused on veterans who were from Latin America. But soon they began working with other groups to locate more veterans and help them apply for humanitarian parole.

Last year, Smith encouraged Richardson to file his own application. He had been honorably discharged, and Smith thought he would have a good shot.

While Richardson was gathering the paperwork he needed, he developed a pain in his foot that wouldn’t go away. Late last year, just as he was filing his application to return to the U.S., doctors located the problem deep in his bone marrow: He had leukemia, they told him.

In January, Richardson’s doctors told him the cancer had not responded to the first round of chemotherapy. Still, he remained hopeful—about his leukemia and his humanitarian parole.

“I’m gonna go,” he said. “I want to see my children and have one last rodeo.”

Hurdles to Citizenship

Advocates for deported veterans say they believe the immigration initiative was launched with good intentions, but that it’s not doing enough. The real issue, they argue, is that there are deported veterans at all. And the only real solution, they say, is to make sure no one leaves the military without becoming a citizen of the nation they served.

Decisions about citizenship lie with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), not the Department of Defense, and myriad hurdles can stand in the way of servicemembers trying to naturalize. When James, who was born in Mexico, applied for citizenship while she was in the Army, she missed her scheduled naturalization ceremony in Iraq because her unit got orders to go to Germany. When the ceremony finally was rescheduled in Europe, she missed that one, too: She already had orders sending her back to Iraq. Ultimately, she got her citizenship through her husband, she said.

deported U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas-Varela
Deported mother Yolanda Varona, from left, Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties, deported U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas-Varela, and Nathan Fletcher, right, who has supported Barajas-Varela, react after an announcement from immigration officials stating that Barajas-Varela received American citizenship in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, March 29, 2018. Lawyers for Hector Barajas said the government informed them Thursday their client should attend a naturalization ceremony on April 13 in San Diego. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services confirmed the decision. (AP Photo/Joel Angel Juarez)

The military does not provide immigration lawyers, and overseas deployments make finding and meeting with lawyers and immigration officials difficult. A 2008 law that required USCIS to process military naturalization applications within six months expired in 2013. In 2019, USCIS closed many of its overseas offices, announcing it would have just four “hubs”—in South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Italy—for military members applying for naturalizations.

Bootcamp sites throughout the service branches used to work with USCIS to help enlistees naturalize during basic training. Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney who helped set up the defense department’s collaboration with USCIS while she was in the Army, said that made a difference.

“My mantra that I repeat over and over again is if there’s basic training naturalization, there’s no deported vets,” she said.

But that program ended in 2018, as did another initiative Stock spearheaded to recruit and expedite citizenship applications for immigrant service members with certain critical skills.

In recent months, facing dire recruiting numbers, some basic training sites have reinstated naturalization programs. But those are not widespread, and the Defense Department and USCIS did not respond to questions about plans to reinstate the initiative on a broader basis. Without a more permanent solution in place, advocates worry that programs like these will disappear when the political—or recruiting—winds shift.

“If we don’t have something guaranteed in place,” Lazaro said, “we will have another group of deported veterans.”

In January, the ACLU and other groups that provide services for deported veterans wrote to the Biden administration, asking that the president consider pardoning veterans who are subject to deportation. Advocates also point to legislative efforts to standardize naturalization processes for enlistees and limit the deportation of veterans, like the Veteran Service Recognition Act and the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, neither of which made it through the last Congress. Both have been reintroduced.

A Long-Awaited Phone Call

 It is sometimes easier for deported veterans to come home in a casket than to return in life. Like most veterans who were honorably discharged, they are eligible to be buried in a military cemetery.

Last year, James’ group tried to help an Army veteran in Mexico, Mario Arturo Moreno, come to the United States for emergency treatment of appendicitis. His doctor in Mexico wrote that his condition was critical, with “a high risk of death in the short term,” and he needed transfer to a more advanced hospital. His daughter said she had arranged transport to the El Paso VA, just over the U.S.-Mexico border. But ICE denied his request. He died in Mexico two days later. His family buried him in Fort Bliss National Cemetery.

This past February, José M. Velasco Hernandez, an Army veteran who also served in the California National Guard, died in Tijuana while waiting on his humanitarian parole application decision.

“I will go back,” he told WCBU in 2019. “Because that’s my country.”

Earlier this year, Jesus António Juarez, a Marine Corps veteran who grew up in San Diego, also died in Tijuana while applying for humanitarian parole.

As for Richardson, by the time February came around this year, he was back in the hospital, with his leg out of commission and a high fever. He still hadn’t received a decision about his parole application. In April, his doctors told him the second round of chemotherapy was not working. 

Last week, Richardson’s lawyer called him. He was so weak that his wife had to answer the phone. But the lawyer had good news: His parole application had finally been granted. He would be permitted to return to the country he had served, the country where he grew up.

Hours later, around four o’clock in the morning, Richardson died. He was 68.

“They will not bring you back just on your service, or even on your illness. But they will bring you back dead,” said Lazaro, the commander of VFW Post 7420. “They will bury you in the national cemetery, and at the next Wreaths Across America, we will all say your name, like we did you right.”

This War Horse investigation was reported by Sonner Kehrt, edited by Erica Goode, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.

Editors Note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter.

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