While members of the United States military risk their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds or possibly thousands of vets have been permanently banished from the country.
Hector Barajas served in the U.S. Army for six years. He was deported to Mexico in 2003, and now lives in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, so he can be close enough to receive visits from his seven-year-old American citizen daughter. He wants nothing more than to return to the United States to be with her.
Non-citizens like Hector may serve in the U.S. military as long as they are legal permanent residents, and many do. The Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) reports over 70,000 non-citizens enlisted from 1999 to 2008. According to the CNA, once enlisted, non-citizens tend to stay in the military longer than their citizen counterparts.
Even though Hector was a legal permanent resident, he was permanently deported from the United States. Under current law, he is not eligible to return -- ever.
Changes to immigration law in 1996 now require the permanent deportation of every non-citizen convicted of one of a long list of criminal offenses, ranging from nonviolent crimes like fraud to more serious crimes. Hector was convicted of discharging a firearm into a vehicle. Instead of being released after serving his three year prison sentence, he was deported to Mexico.
The 1996 changes to the law eliminated judicial discretion. Even in cases like Hector's, where a legal permanent resident has children in the United States and has served the country, judges' hands are tied. Judges may not grant exceptions to the permanent deportation rule under current law.
It is not known just how many veterans have been deported. Barajas estimates the number to be somewhere between 8,000 and 40,000. He has identified one hundred deported vets who now live in countries including Costa Rica, Italy, Jamaica, Bosnia, and Mexico. Within the Tijuana-Rosarito area of Mexico, he knows fifteen veterans who've been deported. Some of their stories can be found on the website for Banished Veterans, a group Barajas founded to advocate for this population, as well as to provide shelter and support to local vets.
Even veterans who have served in war are permanently banished from the United States. Hector Barrios, 69 years old, served in the Vietnam War. He explains, "I was injured in combat. I saw so many fellow soldiers injured." He was deported to Mexico due to a criminal conviction about ten years ago. He lives in Tijuana, where he barely earns enough money to survive. Since deportation for criminal convictions is permanent under the 1996 changes to the law, he will never be eligible to reunite with his American citizen children. Barajas hopes the law will change so that he can go back to the U.S. someday. He explains, "I think it's unjust to deport someone who fought for the United States."
Families of deportees hope that the law will change to allow for more judicial discretion. H.R. 713 -- the Keeping Families Together Act of 2011 -- aims to roll back some of the 1996 changes to the law. Experts predict the bill has no chance of passing at this time. However, the American wife of a deportee explains, "I have faith that the law will change once people realize how extreme the law is. Otherwise, I'll never be able to go home."
Check back soon for a more detailed report about H.R. 713.