Immigrant Soldiers Serve Country, Still Face Deportation

An estimated 4,000 veterans face deportation because of criminal convictions.

By Julianne Hing Oct 25, 2010

It jars the mind: immigrants who put their lives on the line, served in wars from Korea to Kosovo, and are being rewarded for their service by being deported from the United States. How can it be? And yet, many are.

The AP’s Juliana Barbassa reports that an estimated 4,000 immigrant veterans are facing deportation or have already been deported because of criminal convictions. Barbassa profiles Rohan Coombs, a 43-year-old Jamaican-born U.S. Marine who fell on hard times after he came back from serving in the Persian Gulf in the first Iraq war. Coombs was convicted of selling pot to an undercover cop in 2008, when he was working as a bouncer outside a club. He’s facing deportation now to a country he left when he was a child.

"If I had died," Coombs tells Barbassa, "they would have made me a citizen, given me a military funeral, and given the flag to my mom. But I didn’t die. Here I am. I just want another chance."

Barbassa reports that around 8,000 legal residents enlist in the military every year, and currently there are almost 17,000 people who are not citizens on active duty. Undocumented immigrants are barred from serving in the military.

A set of laws passed by Congress in 1996 made immigrants convicted of a class of so-called "aggravated felonies"–any crime where the possible jail sentence was two years–deportable. Under this new designation, "aggravated felonies" for immigration purposes could be crimes that are not actually felonies in criminal law. For the majority of people, the law was crystal clear: no judicial discretion, no second chances. Even if they arrived in the country as kids and don’t speak the language of the country they’re being sent to. Even if they had since rebuilt their lives and gotten themselves back on track. Even if they are U.S. military.

CNN recently profiled a pair of brothers in their fifties named Manuel and Valente Valenzuela who are facing deportation for convictions that are years old. One was convicted on domestic violence charges eleven years ago, another for resisting arrest 25 years ago. People serve time for their criminal convictions, and then face a second punishment all over again with deportation. The story is not uncommon, but it’s not often told.

While there are reports that the Obama administration is allowing some immigration judges to exercise discretion in a select few deportation cases, the vast majority do not get such treatment. Coombs and the Valenzuelas will be forced to leave the country unless the U.S. government steps in to halt their removal orders.

Among the millions of immigrants who’ve seen their families torn apart by deportation, criminal deportees’ stories’ don’t often lend themselves to easy storytelling or sympathy. Perhaps because of this, they’re neither as visible nor as outspoken in the mainstream immigrant rights movement. None of the policy options on the table in the current immigration reform debate would address the plight of criminal deportees.

Indeed, they’re the favored scapegoat of the immigrant rights discourse. The Obama administration has committed to cracking down on immigrants with criminal convictions on their records–hardened and dangerous criminals, the administration calls them. And deportations of people with criminal convictions are indeed up, as are deportations of those with no criminal history. The Obama administration deported 392,000 people in the last fiscal year, a record number of single-year removals.

Many who’ve been kicked out of the country, however, were convicted of minor, nonviolent crimes like shoplifting and pot possession. There are those, too, who are deported from the country and barred from re-entering because of domestic violence convictions, and even homicide.

Except everyone’s story is much more complicated than just the crimes they were convicted of, none more so than for immigrant vets.

That one person can be both valorous hero and convicted criminal–indeed that any person might have been convicted of a terrible crime and still deserve legal protection and the right to stay in the country with their families–messes with the story we’ve been told about who deserves to stay in the country and who doesn’t. 

Our legal system gets similarly confused. The immigration system is not prepared to deal with these nuances, and the immigration laws no longer make allowance for complicated pasts and the full spectrum of human reality. Untold thousands of families have been torn apart as a result.

Barbassa reports that the U.S. government couldn’t give hard numbers on how many vets are deported every year, but will start tracking that. And, in a bit of hopeful news, immigrant vets facing similar fates may have an ally in Congress:

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is looking into potential changes to the law so immigrants who serve in the military can avoid deportation.

"You come back from Iraq or Afghanistan today, you have put yourself on the line for this country," said Filner. "An incredible number of kids come back with an injury or illness that puts them in trouble with the law. To simply have these people deported is not a good way to thank them for their service."