Enrique Salas, who served four years in the Marines and was eligible for citizenship, was deported to Mexico about a decade ago.
His mistake? After his brother was killed in a military training accident, Salas began to use drugs. He served a six-month sentence for possession of a controlled substance. In 2006, his criminal record led to his deportation.
Salas is one of 84 foreign-born veterans featured in a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, “Discharged, then Discarded.” They were either deported or are facing deportation. In Mexico, they face threats from drug cartels seeking to recruit them because of their military expertise.
The ACLU is calling for new laws that would allow these veterans to return to the U.S. and make it easier for immigrants in the armed forces to become citizens. The report accuses the federal government of failing to provide “clear and accurate information” to foreign-born veterans about their naturalization eligibility.
“This reports shows how the federal government has failed these veterans,” said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights and senior staff attorney for the ACLU of California, in a news release.
“They were told they were American enough to fight our wars and serve our country, and then deported and discarded. That’s unacceptable. The U.S. government must do right by these men and women,” Pasquarella said.
Changes to immigration laws in the 1990s increased the types of criminal convictions that can result in deportation, including minor drug offenses. They also removed the authority of immigration judges to offer leniency to veterans.
According to the report, most deported veterans are guilty of minor drug offenses, including self-medicating for psychological problems tied to their military service.
“The brave men and women in our military who have fought our country’s wars abroad have now become victims of our nation’s war on immigrant communities,” said Bardis Vakili, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego. “While our service members live every day with the creed that they will leave no man behind, a belief that applies regardless of what side of some boundary you were born on, Congress has left no room for such sentiment.”
Many of them left behind U.S. citizen family members, some of whom suffer from physical and mental health problems tied to the deportation, including one documented suicide.
The 23-year-old daughter of the deported veteran Salas, Stephanie Rabara, is a U.S. citizen who lives in San Diego. She said her father raised her as a single parent.
“Why my dad would ever be taken from me after he served our country is mind blowing to me,” she said during a press conference about the report. “He’s the only parent I have.”
Rabara was 13 years old when her father was deported.
Jan Ruhman of the Deported Veterans Support Group/USA estimates that about 80,000 veterans have been deported in the past two decades.
He said nine deported veterans died last year in Baja California for diseases treatable in the U.S., such as tuberculosis and AIDS.
“We need to stop saying we’re going to support the troops unless we mean it,” he said. “Some of these slogans seem really shameful in light of how we’re treating these veterans.”