Hundreds of US vets who served on battlefields from Korea to Iraq have been banished from the United States for committing minor offenses, such as check fraud or possession of marijuana.
The reason they can be deported is because when these offenders put on U.S. military uniforms, they were non-citizens.
Many of them like Hector Barajas live in what’s been dubbed “The Bunker”– a 1,000 square foot building three miles from the San Ysidro border crossing- just outside Tijuana, Mexico.
Barajas is 38 years old. He came to America at the age of seven, with his parents, and attained legal resident status. He served in the US Army’s legendary 82nd Airborne Division from 1995-2001 and was honorably discharged.
After returning home, however, he got into some trouble when a firearm was discharged from his vehicle. According to Fox News, he was deported after pleading guilty and serving two years in prison. He left his wife and young daughter behind in California.
Barajas says the “structure, chores and self reliance” he learned in the military helped him keep The Bunker in order all these years. Barajas battled drug addiction for a long time, but The Bunker is not just a halfway house to him. From there, and through the nonprofit deportedveteranssupporthouse.org, he tries to help U.S. vets who “show up at his door or find themselves sent to as many as 22 different nations.” He’s sort of known as the “patron saint of deported veterans.”
Barajas is hoping that the need for his services will end soon, if legislation is passed that would prohibit deportation of US service personnel, both former and current.
Barajas believes there’s more than 300 deported vets spread throughout the world. Typically he says they’re sent home to their birth countries “even though they often have no family or connections there.”
According to the Defense Dept, most deported veterans were permanent residents, or green-card holders, at the time they enlisted. About 5,000 documented noncitizens sign up for the military every year, said a DOD spokesman. There’s an enormous incentive to join – since residents are put on the “fast track” to naturalized citizenship.
What’s most frustrating for many of these vets is that they are still eligible for VA benefits and medical treatment but those benefits are just outside of their reach — in the United States.
Immigrations law is so complex, experts say, that many defendants who can’t afford attorneys or who aren’t automatically given one – don’t ever get to tell their side of the story and are sometimes wrongfully deported.
“Any lawful permanent resident, veteran or not, can be deported upon conviction of a crime that falls under the extremely broad umbrella of a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude. This can be either a misdemeanor or felony, and typically includes anything from assault, fraud and perjury to robbery, theft and bribery.”
Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based attorney, retired Army lieutenant colonel and West Point professor says, “Most people also don’t understand how complicated immigration law really is and how easy it is to run afoul of these complex laws.”
The immigration code now includes “scores of petty offenses” listed alongside the severe ones, all punishable by deportation.
Still, the federal government is “very deliberate” in its review of cases involving veterans, says Gillian Christensen, spokeswoman for the U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE does not issue the final order of removal, however. A federal immigration judge does that.
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