As Congress and the Obama administration look for ways to address our broken immigration system, one step is clear. They have the authority to, and must, end the deportation of our veterans.
It is hard to believe that the United States deports men and women who have honorably served in our armed forces, but it’s true. Despite their service and steadfast loyalty, thousands of veterans have faced deportation or have been deported during the past several decades. For a nation that usually honors the men and women who defend America’s liberty and freedom, the denial of these very rights to military veterans is shockingly hypocritical.
Each year, thousands of lawfully present noncitizens enlist in the United States military; as of 2008, there were 65,000 immigrants serving on active duty. They are not citizens; they are green card holders and others who are in the United States lawfully. According to a Defense department study, noncitizens are considered “a valuable enlisted recruiting resource” and a “source of greater diversity,” and their attrition rates are substantially lower than that of U.S. citizens.
Fabian Rebolledo is one such individual. Fabian served as a field artillery paratrooper in Kosovo and was deported after depositing a bad check he received on a construction job while working as a general contractor. He was deported in 2010. Fabian spent most of his life in California, after coming to the United States with his family at age 13. His 13-year-old son is now forced to live without his father.
Lawful permanent residents may enlist in the military, but they face deportation if they are convicted of a criminal offense or otherwise violate immigration laws. As a result of current law, hundreds of veterans like Fabian have been deported in recent years for crimes that are classified as “aggravated felonies” under immigration law; yet the term aggravated felony is a misnomer because many of these offenses are neither aggravated nor felonies. An immigration judge is not permitted to consider the individual circumstances of anyone who has an “aggravated felony” conviction. It doesn’t matter how old, minor or non-violent the offense, or if the individual has long since been rehabilitated. Such a person’s fate is sealed: He or she must be detained and deported.
The administration’s current deportation priorities target so-called criminal aliens, many of whom have aggravated felonies on their record. These priorities must be reconfigured. The kinds of offenses that fall under the “aggravated felony” category include even minor charges such as petty theft and marijuana possession. Thousands of individuals who are deported each year fall under this category, and many are legal permanent residents with U.S. citizen family members and longstanding ties to the community. None of their individual circumstances such as military service can be considered before they are deported.
When the current immigration laws were signed into law almost two decades ago, Sen. Harry Reid said, “These measures have now snared immigrants who spilled their blood for our country. As the INS prepares to deport these American veterans, we have not even been kind enough to thank them for their service with a hearing to listen to their story and consider whether, just possibly, their military service or other life circumstances outweigh the government’s interest in deporting them.”