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Alisa Wellek Headshot

Below the Radar: The U.S. Deports Military Veterans

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As the nation honors those who died in military service this Memorial Day, we should also remember the brave veterans who survived their time on the battlefield, but lost their country due to the failings of today's immigration system.

Thousands of immigrants have risked their lives for a belief that they were protecting our rights and freedoms only then to be denied those basic American principles by being detained and deported from the country they served and love. According to the group Banished Veterans, an estimated 30,000 former military service members have been deported since 1996.

Congress and the Obama Administration cannot wait any longer to correct the unjust immigration policies that result in the permanent banishment of U.S. military veterans, and they should consider Navy veteran Howard Dean Bailey when doing so.

Howard was a legal permanent resident who spent the majority of his life in the U.S. and served honorably in the Persian Gulf War. He was a husband, a father, and a business and homeowner. In 2010, however, none of that mattered when immigration officials came knocking at his door.

After serving four years in the Navy, Howard moved back to Virginia to resume civilian life as a lawful permanent resident. He started taking classes at a community college, met his future wife and worked hard. One day, a buddy on the base asked if he could mail a package to his home. Howard said, no problem. As he left his apartment to drop off the package, he was stopped by police officers who had been tracking its delivery; the package was filled with marijuana and he was arrested on the spot.

On the advice of his lawyer, Howard pleaded guilty and served 15 months. He then went on to rebuild his life with his family, starting two businesses, buying a home, and mentoring returning veterans. In 2005, he applied for citizenship. He hid nothing and truthfully revealed his old conviction. He waited and waited. Five years later, when the caseworker advised Howard that his old conviction history couldn't be found, he turned over his records. His citizenship application was denied.

Five months later, immigration agents came to his home in the early morning hours and handcuffed him in front of his family. Howard's old conviction was classified as an "aggravated felony," a broad term unique to the immigration system that covers a long list of offenses, many of which are neither aggravated nor felonies. Under current harsh immigration laws that were passed in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of greencard holders have been torn from their families, facing mandatory detention and deportation for so-called "aggravated felonies" and other offenses. After fighting to stay with his family for two years while in detention, he was deported back to Jamaica, a country he hadn't seen since he was 17.

Even more absurd and unjust are the constraints placed on immigration judges to limit their ability to judge when deciding cases. For example, immigration judges cannot consider individual circumstances for people with "aggravated felony" convictions. Not only can they not consider anything about the offense itself, but more importantly, they cannot consider the life the person has led since, including honorable service in the U.S. military, and family and community ties.

Immigration law must be changed to let judges be judges and to allow them the ability to consider these individual circumstances when deciding if someone should be deported or remain in the United States. Ultimately, only Congress can change these laws, but while the House's Republican leadership stalls the passage of any true reform, the Obama administration can stop the deportation of U.S. veterans now.

The administration can immediately suspend all deportations and stop funneling veterans and others who have contributed to our communities into a detention and deportation machine that violates our fundamental notions of fairness and due process. The administration can bring home those like Howard Bailey who have been lost, not on the battlefield, but by banishment from their own government.