ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Border Report) – They risked their lives in conflict areas and foreign battlefields for the country they love. Most went back to civilian life with an honorary discharge and a sense of accomplishment, but also with emotional scars that clouded their decision-making.
Now, several humanitarian nonprofits are joining resources to bring back 400 foreign-born veterans of the U.S. armed forces who lost their lawful immigration status after being convicted of crimes. So far, they’ve brought back more than 65 on humanitarian parole.
“A lot of the veterans struggle after their service because of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), traumatic events that happened or substance abuse,” said Danitza James, chair of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ Subcommittee for Deported Veterans. Unlike U.S. citizens who served, “if they get caught (driving while intoxicated) or with drugs or commit a felony, their military service is not considered; they are deported.”
LULAC, which wrapped up its national convention in Albuquerque last week, is trying to make contact and avail legal resources to deported veterans in Mexico, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya and the United Kingdom, among others. Those deportations could have been avoided if the former soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen had become American citizens while in the military, James said. They would have qualified – already vetted and performing work of national security.
“In some cases, they were told their citizenship would be automatic, and that was not the case. Others didn’t apply because they were deploying or training. I served with a ‘green card’ (legal permanent residence), I was deployed twice to Iraq, I was constantly training. When I left the military in 2006, I still had a green card,” James said.
The deportations not only cost the veterans the comfort and benefits to be found in America but also separated them from their loved ones and placed them in countries where gang warfare is widespread and only the police and the criminals seem to have all the have guns, their advocates say.
“It seems so strange that our borders are so open for everybody to come but our veterans struggle so much,” said Lorelei Horse Stands Waiting, director of the New Mexico-based All Relations United nonprofit.
The advocate was in Juarez, Mexico, last month to watch Ricardo Muñoz, a U.S. Army veteran, walk to a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, after receiving humanitarian parole. He was deported 16 years ago after being convicted on a drug charge.
Muñoz’s return was bittersweet. He lost his father while in Mexico and was denied an immigration permit to go to his funeral. His mother died a year later and Muñoz, again, was denied a permit. Advocates intervened so he could be at the funeral.
“My transition was very difficult. The last time I was here was in the third grade, in elementary” school, Muñoz said. “But thank God, through prayer, family and music it has helped me do the best that I can with what I have.”
The U.S. Army veteran formed a mariachi band to make ends meet and stay out of trouble in Juarez.
“No one would suspect that a mariachi (player) would be a U.S. veteran,” Horse Stands Tall said. “They are targeted for recruitment by the cartels for their military expertise.”
James agrees that deported veterans living in Juarez, Tijuana and other Mexican border cities with heavy drug cartel presence are at risk. That’s why LULAC wants the Biden administration to make good on campaign promises to take military service into account before deporting an immigrant.
LULAC also supports the Veterans Service Recognition Act, which passed the House of Representatives last year but died in the Senate. It was reintroduced this year by Democratic U.S. Reps. Mark Takano and Lou Correa, both of California.
Without specific legislation, the deported veterans’ petitions are hit-and-miss, and their status remains in limbo, as they’re given humanitarian parole, not restored permanent legal status, James said.
She told the story of a veteran deported 20 years ago who earned an electrical engineering degree in Mexico and went on to work for a multinational company. He was recently allowed back in and relocated to Seattle, where he will be able to put his skills to work.
But a former serviceman died in March after being denied entry into the U.S. to receive medical care at the VA hospital in El Paso. Oddly, federal officials allowed his cremated remains into the country and they were buried with full military honors in Fort Bliss, Texas, she said.
“Our veterans should not be dying in exile,” she said.