Deported Marine veteran hoping to find a way back to family
By KATE MORRISSEY | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: July 14, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Roman Sabal, a Marine Corps veteran, has been trying to become a U.S. citizen since 1995.
Instead, he unwittingly joined the ranks of deported veterans when he went to visit his home country of Belize in 2008 and found out he wouldn’t be allowed to come back to the country he’d taken an oath to protect.
For more than a decade, Sabal has been stuck outside the United States because a judge ordered him deported at a court hearing that Sabal didn’t know about. Because of that, he’s been separated from his two U.S. citizen children and their mother, whom he hopes to marry one day.
“I really want to be with my family,” Sabal said. “I miss my family. My kids have grown up — birthdays, Christmas, holidays.”
He hasn’t seen them since they came to visit him briefly in 2014. He wants to trade the phone calls and WhatsApp messages that make up his relationship with his family for hugs and kisses -- the ability to actually touch his loved ones.
Reports have identified several hundred deported veterans of the U.S. military in at least 34 countries around the world. A recent government oversight report found that in many cases, immigration officials do not follow the special protocols required to deport veterans.
Advocates for the veterans have pushed Congress to pass laws that would allow those who serve to stay in the United States. Critics say that because many were deported after criminal convictions, deportation is an appropriate consequence regardless of military service.
Sabal’s case is different. There was no criminal conviction that caused his deportation.
He managed to join the Marine Corps without being a permanent resident of the United States, so even though he had a clean record, he was found deportable.
Sabal, 58, hopes that because of his military service, he’ll be allowed to naturalize and return to his family. First, he’ll have to convince border officials in San Diego to let him in on Monday morning for a citizenship interview.
When Sabal, originally from Belize, came to the U.S. for the first time in the late 1980s on a visitor visa, he already knew he wanted to join the Marines.
He’d served in the military in Belize, and while he was on a training mission in Panama on a joint exercise with U.S. forces, he saw a group of U.S. troops doing what he called “hardcore training.”
Who are they? he asked. They were Marines.
“I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Sabal recalled.
He joined in 1987, eager to help the U.S. fight communism. In the beginning, he told his recruiter that he was a U.S. citizen and provided a fake document as proof.
During bootcamp, recruits were put through a “Moment of Truth,” he said, and Sabal decided to tell the military that he was actually from Belize.
“I was told, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re a Marine now. You’ll be OK,’” Sabal said. “I learned later on that wasn’t true.”
He served for six years, rising to the rank of sergeant, and traveled to South Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines during the course of his service. He never had an issue coming back into the U.S., he said, because they were always flying out of military bases instead of airports.
He came close to being in a combat zone. His unit was on its way to participate in Operation Desert Storm, but the conflict ceased before his unit arrived, and it was sent back, he said.
After he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, he joined the Army Reserves for several years. When he got out, he struggled to find work in Los Angeles and ended up in Jacksonville, Florida, where he met Arnissa Boatwright.
Boatwright already had two children, and Sabal became a father figure for them. They would go on to have two children of their own — Charles, who is now 20, and Ronyssa, 13.
Sabal, who already had a pending naturalization application based on his military service, wanted to wait to marry Boatwright because he didn’t want anyone to think that he was using her for citizenship.
Though he had been interviewed, he did not receive a final decision on the naturalization application that he submitted in 1995. Despite his in limbo status, Sabal decided he had to go back to Belize temporarily in the mid 2000s after he was diagnosed with diabetes. Frustrated with the treatment prescribed to him in the U.S., he was persuaded by his mother to go stay with her to try holistic remedies.
When he returned to the U.S., a customs officer asked where he was from.
“I told them I was born in Los Angeles because I remembered what they told me in the Marines,” Sabal said.
But the officer saw Sabal’s citizenship application in the system. He was held for several hours before officials decided to let him back into the U.S.
Boatwright had moved to Chicago, and Sabal joined her there. He went for another citizenship interview. At some point, an immigration court notice was mailed to them, but they were no longer living at that address and never received it.
His diabetes got worse again, so he and Boatwright agreed he would return to Belize for more of his mother’s herbal remedy. In 2016, he tried to apply for citizenship again, and when he asked for a visa to be able to attend his scheduled interview in Los Angeles, he was told he couldn’t come back to the U.S. because he’d been ordered deported.
Sabal tried to tell officials that he hadn’t been deported, that he’d come back to Belize on his own, and eventually he learned what had happened in his absence in immigration court.
A little while later, he heard about Hector Barajas, a deported veteran living in Tijuana who had started a movement to help fellow deported veterans access their benefits and even possibly return to the U.S.
Barajas himself, after years of struggle, was able to come back to the U.S. and become a citizen after former Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him for the crime that got him deported.
Barajas hopes that Sabal will have an easier time getting through since he doesn’t have a criminal history blocking his path. Now, Sabal has a team of attorneys from Public Counsel’s Immigrants’ Rights Project supporting his citizenship application.
He was scheduled for a citizenship interview earlier this year, but when his legal team didn’t hear back from the federal government about whether he would be allowed on U.S. soil to attend the interview, his attorneys rescheduled for July 15.
They still haven’t heard back on their request for temporary permission for him to enter the country, so before the interview on Monday morning, they plan to make that request again in person to border officials at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
“It’s not a complex thing to grant parole,” said attorney Talia Inlender, using the legal term for a temporary permission to enter, “and certainly not for one day for one interview for one client with no criminal history who served honorably in the Marines for years.”
When asked about Sabal’s case, a Customs and Border Protection official said, “Generally, applicants for admission into the United States could qualify for various types of benefits offered by the U.S. government. CBP is not the only agency that issues paroles.”
The official referred the San Diego Union-Tribune to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further comment on Sabal. ICE in turn deferred to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for deciding whether Sabal can become a citizen.
USCIS said that privacy concerns prevent the agency from commenting on the case.
Meanwhile, Sabal’s family and friends are anxious to know what will happen.
“We’re all on pins and needles just to get him to arrive for that,” Boatwright said.
She’s missed having him around, not just for his delicious cooking and love of music, but because of what his absence has meant for their children and the family’s financial stability.
“It’s been tough. The things I want to do in life — we’re supposed to have a white picket fence by now, and I’ve had roommate after roommate,” said Boatwright who is now back in Jacksonville. “We’ve slept on some floors a couple of nights.”
Their son Charles Sabal said he tries to keep a positive mindset about his father’s situation, but the waiting hasn’t been easy. His father missed his high school graduation, not to mention countless basketball games.
“I hope everybody can understand that it’s frustrating that people have to go through this, and there are people just like him going through the same process,” the younger Sabal said.
For the older Sabal, coming back will mean potentially moving the family to California, a dream of his. No matter where they end up, it will definitely mean a wedding.
“After all of this is over, I’ve promised to get married to her, and I’m going to keep my promise,” Sabal said.
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