In hearings before Congress a retired United States Army paratrooper, once deported to Mexico, now an American citizen, says lawmakers must focus on bringing deported veterans home to the United States.
The testimony by Hector Barajas, featured in NBC Bay Area’s reporting on the issue of deported veterans some three years ago, was the focus of an effort by several in Congress to pass a new bill, HR 4890, “The Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act Of 2019.” Years in the making the proposed law now under consideration carries tremendous implications for hundreds of deported vets and for thousands of immigrants in U.S. military service.
If passed, the bill would bring eligible deported veterans back to the U.S., and it would improve tracking by the Department of Homeland Security of noncitizen veterans who wind up in immigration hearings. It would also offer a pathway of citizenship for spouses and children of members of the Armed Services.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit first exposed the issue in early 2017: The Unit found at least 300 U.S. war veterans who are not citizens and weredeported after they served because they got into legal trouble after leaving military service. Veterans who appeared in NBC Bay Area’s series testified on Capitol Hill.
Barajas shared his experience with the 82nd Airborne with House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration And Citizenship.
“I was part of the all Americans – as we were called,” said Barajas. “We were all paratroopers, ready and willing to fight for our country and our values. We risked our lives on many days, performing dangerous air evacuations and dealing with multiple injuries as a result. I re-enlisted for another three years,” he said.
The Investigative Unit first talked to Barajas three years ago in Tijuana, Mexico. He’d been deported along with dozens of other honorably discharged U.S. military veterans. At the time, Barajas was running a shelter for deported vets nicknamed “the Bunker.” There he offered deported veterans legal and immigration services.
Barajas had documented more than 300 veterans who had been deported under a policy dating back 25 years to Bill Clinton’s administration. That law triggers deportation when any immigrant, even a military veteran, commits what’s known as an “Aggravated Felony.” That broad term includes wide array of crimes, including seemingly minor offenses such as failure to show in court, entering the country illegally and drug possession.
“Immigrant veterans are falling through the cracks of our broken immigration system and being deported, and it’s a disgrace,” said U.S. Representative Mark Takano from Riverside County. Takano is also the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. “Our country cannot be doing this,” he said, adding “Deporting veterans denies them the ability to remain in the country they call home and prevents them from accessing the benefits they earned and are still eligible for under the law. Congress must correct this grave injustice and this legislative package can get us closer to achieving that.”
Two other Congressmen joined Takano as he introduced the new legislation: Representative Juan Vargas of San Diego and Representative Mark Grijalva of Arizona.
“It is clear that our nation’s immigration system is failing when our veterans, who served to defend our freedoms, are being sent to a country that is foreign to them without access to the benefits they rightfully earned,” said Rep. Juan Vargas. “Just as these service members fought for our nation, we must now fight for them.”
“We must put an end to the tragedy of deporting veterans who have put their lives on the line to serve the country they love,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva. “The legislation honors the sacrifices of immigrant veterans and their families.”
Earlier this year Congressman Takano asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the deportation of immigrant veterans. The agency found that ICE didn’t “consistently follow its (own) policies involving veterans.”
“I couldn’t hardly believe it,” said Takano. Those policies were designed to give immigrant vets special consideration that would take into account their number of years on duty, assignments to war zones and military decorations. But the GAO report found that in many cases, ICE Agents were not aware of the policy.
“The report identified at least 250 veterans who faced deportation between fiscal years 2013 through 2018, including 92 who were eventually deported,” said Hector Barajas as he testified before Congress.
After NBC Bay Area’s first series of stories aired then Governor Jerry Brown pardoned three deported veterans, including Hector Barajas. Barajas returned to the country he served and was formally sworn in as a citizen in March 2018.
Both Barajas and Congressman Takano believe this issue has enough bi-partisian support now to make real change possible.
“I know current law requires us to deport our veterans,” said Barajas. “I do not think that makes it morally right. We must find a solution to prevent veterans from deportation. We must also bring our deported veterans home,” he said.