Wall Street Journal
By Miriam Jordan
July 6, 2016
Hundreds of immigrant veterans who served in the U.S. armed forces have been deported after committing minor crimes because they didn’t have U.S. citizenship, according to a report issued Wednesday.
Many are combat veterans, including individuals who sustained physical and emotional trauma on the battlefield, who served as far back as the Vietnam War and as recently as in Iraq. Some were decorated for their service. The majority were legal U.S. residents for decades.
In the report that attempts to document the extent of the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union of California presents 59 cases of veterans who have been deported or are fighting removal.
Many of the veterans studied by the ACLU committed low-level offenses after struggling to re-adjust to civilian life, according to the report. The majority were swept up in changes to immigration law that expanded the offenses for which noncitizens can be deported and stripped immigration judges of discretionary authority.
“The heart of this tragedy is that all these people were eligible to naturalize,” said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights at the ACLU in Los Angeles. “Many of them believed that by serving, they automatically became citizens.”
Non-U.S. citizens can enlist and be drafted as well. There are more than 500,000 foreign-born veterans, according to independent estimates. About 12,000 service members on active duty aren’t U.S. citizens, according to the Department of Defense.
The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t track the number of deported veterans.
In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of Homeland Security, said it can exercise prosecutorial discretion for members of the military. However, ICE said, “Applicable law requires ICE to mandatorily detain and process for removal individuals that have been convicted of aggravated felonies as defined under the Immigration and Naturalization Act.”
The ACLU has identified 239 such deportees from 34 countries since it began studying the issue in January, but said the numbers could be much higher. About 50 deported veterans live around Tijuana, Mexico, where a support group was formed.
Typically, veterans convicted of drug possession or domestic violence completed a prison sentence and then were informed they would be deported for the offense. In some cases, they didn’t do jail time.
Jamaica-born Clayton Gordon said he was working in his tomato garden in Connecticut when immigration agents pulled up in June 2013. “I had no idea what it was about,” said the 41-year-old green-card holder who served six years in the Army.
Mr. Gordon was arrested after immigration officials identified him on a list of immigrants with deportable offenses. He learned he would be placed in deportation proceedings based on a four-year-old conviction for a drug crime that resulted in no jail time. Under immigration law, the offense was deemed an aggravated felony that made him deportable.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I had my garden, my family, a successful business. I served this country.”
A general contractor who is the father of three U.S.-born children and married to an American, Mr. Gordon remained in immigration detention for five months.
Since being released in late 2013, he has continued to fight to stay in the U.S. Mr. Gordon’s case went to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded it to immigration court for further review last month.
“I am still in limbo,” he said. “My family lives in fear that I could be taken away.” He hasn’t been back to Jamaica since moving to the U.S. at the age of 6, he said.
Jorge Salcedo, who legally immigrated to the U.S. from Peru when he was a teenager, served eight years in the Army and was honorably discharged in 2002, according to his wife, Cindy Salcedo.
In 2004, he was convicted of an assault on a police officer under Connecticut law for spitting at an officer when he was inebriated. He was sentenced to three years’ probation for the offense. He battled alcoholism and a DUI in 2013 landed him in removal proceedings. The arrest flagged immigration authorities to his assault conviction. In court, the veteran’s lawyer argued that spitting wasn’t a deportable crime, Ms. Salcedo said.
An immigration judge ordered him deported in 2014. The family filed a motion for the case to be reopened; the judge ordered him removed a second time the following year.
Mr. Salcedo, who has appealed that decision, has been in detention since May 2015. “We lost our house, I gave up my car and had to move into his parents’ basement with our two children,” Ms. Salcedo said.
The ACLU found that 73% of the veterans had no lawyer to represent them in removal proceedings. The organization is calling for a moratorium on the deportation of immigrants who served in the military. Others say that, at the least, the Department of Homeland Security should take steps to review all the cases, given the contributions and sacrifices made by the veterans.
“They should be looked at compassionately, with a view to whether they are a threat to the community and did something wrong that can be attributed to injury or trauma,” said immigration attorney Angelo Paparelli.
Some of the veterans told the ACLU they thought they were citizens by virtue of their service or because they took the oath of enlistment.
Since 2009, recruits have been eligible to obtain citizenship during basic training. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014 3,473 and 4,261, respectively, became citizens through the program.
But retired lieutenant colonel Margaret Stock, an expert on military affairs and immigration, said the initiative recently has experienced slower processing times, denials and resulted in fewer naturalizations. Ms. Stock said she has received a spate of complaints soldiers that weren’t naturalized as promised when they enlisted.
“A program that started out well has become increasingly dysfunctional,” she said.
Deported veterans are banned for life from the U.S. However, all honorably discharged veterans are entitled to burial at a U.S. military cemetery.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com