Congress Moves to Change Law Following NBC Bay Area Investigation

An NBC Bay Area investigation into hundreds of U.S. Military veterans who have been deported under a two-decades old policy has now sparked new legislation in Washington.

On Tuesday, several Congressmen, including Democratic Congressman Mark DeSaulnier of Walnut Creek, introduced a bill (H.R. 1405) in Congress to change the policy.

An NBC Bay Area investigation discovered dozens of families have been split apart -- like Enrique Salas and his daughter Stephanie Rabara -- because of a policy implemented during the Bill Clinton administration and upheld through three subsequent presidencies.

"These men are good enough to serve our country, but once they make a mistake they don't get any second chances," Rabara said. "They're just disposed of."

NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit found the policy has led to the deportation of hundreds of U.S. Military veterans.

The veterans served the United States as non-citizen, were honorably discharged from service, then later deported for committing crimes classified as aggravated felonies.

Some of the crimes these veterans have been deported for include crimes such as simple drug possession, failure to show up in court or entering the country illegally.

Veterans who spoke to NBC Bay Area said there is a double standard at play here, pointing out that all of them served their criminal sentences, whether it be in prison, jail or probation.

“I’ve never lived in Mexico. I’ve been in the United States since I was a year old. How can they repatriate me to a country that I’ve never lived in?” asked Richard Avila, an honorably discharged U.S. Marine.

NBC Bay Area's investigation found that of 70,000 non-citizens enlisted in the U.S. Military between 2009 and 2016, at least half of them never applied for citizenship, according to the Center for Naval Analysis.

Though the government does not track veterans who have been deported, the ACLU of California and a retired vet who runs a shelter for deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico, count more than 300 who would have been forced to leave the country they fought and were willing to die for.

"I didn't realize how bad it is. And what a terrible injustice this is," DeSaulnier said in an interview with NBC Bay Area. "It's really a very poor reflection on the United States in that we ask people to do this and then the consequences, particularly highlighted in your stories."

DeSaulnier saw the NBC Bay Area investigation and said he had to act.

"It's clearly not acceptable. We need to fix it," he said. "We need to fix it in a bipartisan way."

DeSaulnier on Tuesday joined Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona in co-authoring a bill in Congress that would require the United States Department of Homeland Security to establish a veterans visa program to bring back to the U.S. all those who have served and were subsequently deported.

Grijalva introduced a similar bill during the last Congress in 2016, but that bill (H.R. 5695) failed.

"It's a reflection of Congress' inability to deal with immigration in a thoughtful way,” DeSaulnier said. “And it’s the extreme example really of people who have served this country…be here legally and then serve this country and then be punished."

The democratic congressman said several members of Congress want to change the procedure for becoming a citizen when a person signs up to serve in the military and calls this bill a first step of many that he said are needed to fix the problem.

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