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Hispanic caucus looks to VA secretary to end veteran deportation

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: June 21, 2017

WASHINGTON — The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is reaching out to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin for help to stop the deportation of veterans.

Members of the caucus sent a request Monday to Shulkin to meet with them about ceasing veterans’ deportation and providing earned VA benefits to veterans who have already been deported. The request followed the caucus’ visit to Tijuana, Mexico, on June 3, where they met with veterans who told the lawmakers of their struggles being separated from their families and challenges accessing health care.

“During this meeting, the veterans shared many of the challenges they faced when they were initially deported and separated from their families,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter. “One prominent issue they continue to face is access to health care.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., signed the letter. They called on Shulkin to quickly respond to what they called an “urgent meeting request.”

The delegation traveled to the Deported Veterans Support House near the United States border in Tijuana, which was founded by deported Army veteran Hector Barajas-Varela for others like him. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a dozen veterans spoke to the lawmakers, repeatedly telling them, “I just want to go home.”

Honorably discharged veterans who are lawful permanent residents of the United States, meaning they’re noncitizens granted authorization to live in the country, are deported if convicted of crimes, after they serve their sentences.

Military members are automatically granted the right to citizenship, but they must apply for it. The American Civil Liberties Union reported last year that many servicemembers don’t realize their naturalization is not automatic.

Members of the caucus want to talk with Shulkin about the VA better educating veterans who are eligible to apply for citizenship and facilitating that application process “in order to prevent future veteran deportations,” the letter states. There are 10,644 non-citizens serving in the U.S. military and 11,524 more in the reserves, the caucus wrote.

Stars and Stripes has featured Barajas-Varela during the past two years. He came to the U.S. illegally at age 7 with his family and later joined the Army. He served from 1995-2001 and was honorably discharged. In 2002, he was sent to jail for an incident in which a weapon was fired from a vehicle. He completed his sentence in 2004 and ultimately was deported.

Berajas-Verala told Stars and Stripes that he thought he was a citizen until his arrest. California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Berajas-Verala over Easter weekend this year, but U.S. immigration authorities will have the final say whether he can come back to the United States.

The caucus said there are roughly 3,000 cases of veterans being deported, though an accurate number is difficult to know because the U.S. government doesn’t track it. About 60 deported veterans live in the Tijuana area, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

“We are aware of deported veterans that have served as recently as the war in Afghanistan, to veterans that served in the Iraq and Vietnam wars,” the letter to Shulkin reads. “However, because the federal government does not keep track of the number of veterans that have been deported, we do not have an accurate count of all impacted veterans and families.”

One of the caucus members, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., reintroduced three bills in May -- H.R. 2759, 2760 and 2761 -- to have the government better inform servicemembers of citizenship opportunities and fast track their status, as well as to allow veterans to temporarily return to the United States to receive health care at VA facilities.

As of Wednesday morning, the caucus and the VA had not set a meeting time.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin testifies at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, May 11, 2017.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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