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Lawmakers: Stop deporting noncitizen veterans

Graffiti on the fence demarcating the border between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California that plunges into the Pacific Ocean, has been painted with the names of deported American veterans.

DIANNA CAHN/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 16, 2017

WASHINGTON — After months of little response from the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other lawmakers renewed efforts Thursday to stop the deportation of veterans from the U.S. and secure more protections for them.

The lawmakers visited a refuge for deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico, this year, where they met with veterans who were deported after being convicted of crimes in the U.S. The veterans were separated from their families and unable to access federal benefits, such as health care, guaranteed to those who serve in the U.S. military.

“It is absolutely disgraceful that they stepped up for this country and sacrificed for this country, and when their service is done, this country kicks them out,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. “Regardless of where they’re from, they wear the uniform of this country. We should honor them and take care of them.”

The lawmakers sent letters Thursday to leadership of the House Committee on Armed Services, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the Committee on the Judiciary, asking them to take up legislation to allow deported veterans back into the U.S., create an easier pathway to citizenship for servicemembers and allow deported vets to access VA health care. There are currently eight bills in the House that address issues facing deported veterans.

“Steps could be taken by the end of the year. We don’t have one day to waste,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. “Congressional committees can bring in experts to assess our legislative options for a permanent solution.”

The lawmakers want to clear up the naturalization process for servicemembers, which they described as confusing.

Noncitizens who serve in the U.S. military are granted the right to citizenship, but they must apply for it. The American Civil Liberties Union reported last year that many noncitizen servicemembers don’t realize their naturalization is not automatic and that they could be deported if they are convicted of certain crimes.

Until veterans complete the naturalization process, they are subject to deportation.

In their letters, the lawmakers wrote there are about 300 deported veterans living near Tijuana. More than 10,000 noncitizens serve in the U.S. military and more than 11,500 are in the Reserves, they said.

“These men and women put their country first and trust that the military and the government will look after them,” they wrote. “It is essential that we help them understand the naturalization benefits they have earned.”

The lawmakers wrote two more letters, including one to Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke urging her to implement a moratorium on deporting veterans. The other, to VA Secretary David Shulkin, demands access to VA health care and other benefits for veterans stuck outside of the U.S.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been in talks with both agencies since this summer but has seen little progress.

In October, Democrats on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs reached out to Shulkin, asking for urgency to provide health care closer to the veterans in Tijuana and other border cities. The closest medical providers authorized to examine veterans in Tijuana for a possible VA disability rating are thousands of miles away in Mexico City or Guadalajara, Takano said.

Deported veterans in Mexico are also unable to reach the Veterans Crisis Line without special hardware, the lawmakers said. During a hearing in October, Takano questioned Shulkin about opening the crisis line to veterans outside the U.S.

Shulkin responded that he wasn’t aware they couldn’t contact the hot line and followed up later with Takano, saying he would work to fix the problem, Takano said.

“There are things that can be done administratively. I’m hopeful that many of these things can be taken care of,” Takano said. “For longer-term solutions to real repatriation issue, that’s going to take some legislation.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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