Serving Your Country, Only to Be Expelled From It
The Associated Press had a good story Sunday on non-citizens who served in the military and now face deportation for committing crimes. If non-citizens die during service, they are automatically awarded citizenship and given a military funeral. If they survive, though, many are caught up in immigration laws that mandate deportation for a wide array of crimes and allow few exceptions for veterans, even though many argue prior service should mean different treatment in the legal system.
Two veterans awaiting deportation described by the AP argue they were used by the military and are now being cast aside by the country they served. But the story does not touch on the question of whether the military misleads immigrants into joining as a path to citizenship. Although the military is beginning to offer fast-track paths to citizenship for current enlistees, the Army is so far the only branch that has fully implemented these programs. Meanwhile, some charge that military recruiters exploit immigrants by allowing them to believe they will be able to obtain citizenship for themselves and their families through military service — even though this isn’t always the case.
For citizen veterans, the court system is beginning to offer more leniency as part of an understanding that military service can lead to various mental and emotional conditions. In November, the U.S. Sentencing Commission will issue new rules allowing federal judges to consider a criminal defendant’s military service to issue a shorter prison sentence.
But these standards do not apply to immigration courts, where a 1996 anti-illegal immigration law made deportation the standard for immigrants who had committed certain crimes. Immigrant rights advocates argue these laws are unfair, particularly to veterans:
“Drugs, anger management, weapons charges, that’s what a lot of vets are getting caught for, and there is no relief,” said Margaret Stock, a recently retired Army reservist and immigration attorney who taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point. “The 1996 law really put the nails in their coffin.”
Coombs’ attorneys, Shagin and Heather Boxeth of San Diego, Calif., who have represented or advised immigrant veterans in similar straits, estimate up to 4,000 veterans who served as long ago as World War II are now in immigration detention or have been deported, but acknowledge that there are no hard numbers.
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said identifying and removing dangerous criminals from the country is an agency priority — and that the cases of people with prior military service are carefully reviewed.
The military does not allow illegal immigrants to enlist in the army, and both veterans in the AP story entered the country legally. But it is likely that many illegal immigrants who do manage to join the military do so in hopes of obtaining legal status for themselves and their families. In these cases, deportation for veterans could be even more likely. Immigrant rights advocates claim that military recruiters specifically target undocumented students to join the military by promising green cards.
One way to make the system more fair, some argue, would be for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a now-stalled bill that would allow undocumented young people who entered the country as children to gain legal status through attending college or serving in the military. Defense officials have said the bill would be a boon for military recruitment, and supporters of the bill argue it would allow the country to properly acknowledge the service of immigrants in the military.