When I go out with my Dad, he often wears a cap identifying him as a Korean War veteran. Over and over again, people tell him, “Thank you for serving.” Over and over again.
I’m always struck by the contrast between that appreciation and the sad, hidden truth about our country’s treatment of some other veterans. I’m speaking of the government’s detention and deportation of many immigrants who served in our armed forces but who are not yet citizens.
The first time I heard about this was 1998. My friend’s husband, a Canadian who grew up in Texas and chose to serve in Vietnam had recently gotten a deportation order based on some old drug charges, the kind of thing many vets experienced. What horrified me then, and still does today, is that immigration judges could not grant an exception. Nothing could stop the deportation except a change in U.S. immigration laws.
When these vets’ stories are fully told, the underlying reason for their deportation is often revealed to be the hidden wounds they received while serving the country they loved enough to fight for — even without citizenship. These veterans served everywhere from Kosovo to Iraq, Afghanistan to Vietnam. Their stories point to the need for a new way of thinking about how America treats immigrant veterans, one that takes into account their service to all of us.
Today, any veteran who has never naturalized could be deported if he or she has a conviction for almost anything at any time in their life. This is in stark contrast with the past, when such deportations were rare. How did we get to this point?
The story goes back to 1996, when Congress changed the grounds for deportation of legal permanent residents (green card holders). Before that, a conviction with a five-year sentence triggered deportation for legal permanent residents. Since the 1996 legislation, it’s taken just a one-year maximum sentence to get deported. Also in 1996, legal definitions were shuffled so that misdemeanors, simple assault, and minor drug charges became deportable offenses. Even worse, the new legislation included retroactivity, so that convictions prior to 1997 can also bring about deportation.
How many vets’ lives are jeopardized by these changes? The best estimates are that “green card vets” could number from 250,000 to as many as one million. The average percentage of legal permanent residents who enlist has typically been 10 percent over the last 50 years. About half of them do not become citizens before completing their military service.
There is no government count of veterans who are banished from the United States. It is hard to tell the number of veterans with convictions. Veterans and the general population have similar rates of committing violent and “serious” crimes, but citizen and non-citizen vets who have served in combat are vulnerable to the hidden injuries of PTSD, addictions, and depression. Misdemeanors related to these problems are common.
Is it any surprise, then, that the founders of a support house for deported vets in Baja California claim to be in touch with more than 100 vets deported to every continent?
There’s a familiar litany of heartbreak to these veterans’ stories: Families scattered. Homelessness. Poverty. Disorientation in the land to which they’ve been deported, which may be only a childhood memory. All if this, mixed with pride in having served America. Faced with such a human tragedy, how are we to respond?
A good place to start is by looking at alternatives to detention, which is where these veterans end up prior to deportation. On any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) imprisons 34,000 undocumented migrants – not only vets, but also refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture or human trafficking. The ICE “default” setting drops these people – many picked up for as little as a traffic violation – into a network of 260 federal, private, state, and local jails, costing U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion per year.
A different approach – one that could help vets – is outlined in Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy . This report by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service maps out how the federal government can lessen its reliance on detention by partnering with nonprofit groups. These partnerships could create cost-effective alternatives to detention while providing legal and social services that would benefit veterans.
But alternatives to detention do not solve the underlying problems. The laws that mandate deportation without exceptions need to be changed. And veterans who have been deported deserve the opportunity to return to the United States while still alive. So this Veterans Day, please take a moment to think about the many veterans who have been deported, and how you could sway your community leaders and elected officials to push for a different approach.
Thanking veterans is a great thing to do, on Veterans Day and every day. Fixing our immigration laws would be the true gift from a grateful nation.
Rev. Linda Orsen Theophilus is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Eastmont (on the edge of Penn Hills, Wilkins Township and Monroeville). She chairs the Immigration Taskforce for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Photo: Dogtags on the Constitution, Sergey Kamshylin  / Shutterstock.com