A group of advocates for veterans and local politicians gathered in Balboa Park on Monday morning (September 19) to call attention to the plight of servicemembers who, after receiving honorable discharges following their military service, found themselves deported after the commission of crimes.
"Never in my life did I imagine that we would have to come together to say that those who were willing to give their life for our country should be allowed to remain in our country," said former state assemblyman, onetime mayoral hopeful, and Marine veteran Nathan Fletcher. "I always thought citizenship was entitled to those who were honorably discharged, but I was wrong.
"For hundreds, if not thousands of veterans, the system has failed them. Upon completing their service and receiving honorable discharges, many, believing or having been told their citizenship was automatically being processed, went on with their lives."
But a July report from the American Civil Liberties Union points out this isn't the case. In Discharged, Then Discarded, the group looks at 84 cases of veterans who either were deported or face deportation hearings over crimes such as minor drug offenses.
These veterans, the report states, were eligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens while serving, though the federal government until recently often failed to complete the process either during service or shortly after separation. They face further hurdles in often not being able to afford a lawyer (public defenders are not provided for immigration cases) and lack of access to guaranteed VA health and disability benefits after deportation.
"Every American can look at this issue, despite the complexities of our society and government, and know that this isn't fair," said Jack Harkins, a retired Marine officer. "We must take action."
To that end, U.S. House representative Juan Vargas offered up several congressional solutions.
"This week I'll be introducing three pieces of legislation aimed at preventing immigrant service members from being deported and helping veterans who have been deported gain access to health care and services they need," Vargas pledged.
The bills, Vargas continued, would take steps to ensure servicemembers would receive information about naturalization while still serving, establish a tracking system to identify both active and retired troops for the purpose of "fast-tracking" citizenship applications, and allow deported veterans to return to the country on at least a temporary basis to seek health care through the Veterans Administration.
"Some of these individuals qualify for burial at Arlington National Cemetery and yet they can't even come from Tijuana back into San Diego. It's a profound injustice," Vargas concluded.