Over the past couple of years, stories of non-citizen veterans being deported have made major headlines. As it turns out, there is a process in place that provides extra consideration for those immigration cases, but federal officials haven’t been following it.

It’s an issue that’s affected at least hundreds of veterans, but the full extent is unknown because of a lack of record keeping, according to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement not only doesn’t adhere to the policy requiring a service record review before deporting these veterans, they also don’t track how many of them are caught by federal agents or ultimately deported, according to the report.

“When ICE agents and officers learn they have encountered a potentially removable veteran, ICE policies require them to take additional steps to proceed with the case,” according to the report. “GAO found that ICE did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans who were placed in removal proceedings from fiscal years 2013 to 2018.”

Many legal residents of the U.S. choose to service in the military because it can earn them citizenship, though they don’t always qualify for or complete that process. After separation, they could spend years still in the U.S., until something like a criminal conviction brings them to ICE’s attention.

At the request of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, GAO sifted through two databases, finding 250 veterans who had been subject to removal, and 92 who had ultimately been deported.

Since 2004, there have been two memos dictating how ICE agents handle a notice to appear ― the first step in deportation proceedings ― for veterans. And since 2015, those cases have needed to be kicked to a higher headquarters for review.

At a minimum, they must consider:

  • Overall criminal history.
  • Evidence of rehabilitation.
  • Family and financial ties to the U.S.
  • Employment history.
  • Health.
  • Community service.

In relation to their service specifically, they need to review years of service, deployments and awards. If they still decide to go ahead with the deportation case, the veteran’s file must include a memo detailing the review of their service.

The GAO found that this doesn’t happen every time.

“Specifically, ICE policies require agents and officers to document the decision to issue a NTA to a veteran, but do not require agents and officers to identify and document veteran status when interviewing potentially removable individuals,” according to the report.

Twenty-one percent of cases never got a full review of their service, and 70 percent of cases were not reviewed by a higher office, the report found.

“Further, in December 2018 [Homeland Security Investigations] officials told us that HSI has not been adhering to either the 2004 or the 2015 policies because they were unaware of the policies prior to our review," according to the study.

The officials added that they don’t, in practice, distinguish between veterans and non-veterans when opening a deportation case.

“Because ICE did not consistently follow these policies, some veterans who were removed may not have received the level of review and approval that ICE has determined is appropriate for cases involving veterans,” according to the study.

Part of the issue may be that ICE also doesn’t have a policy to identify and document any veterans it deals with. After an initial interview, individuals fill out a form that includes their most recent employer, Enforcement and Removal Operations staff told the GAO, and that’s usually where they find out if someone is a veteran.

“However, ICE does not have a policy requiring agents and officers to specifically ask about and document veteran status,” the report found, despite the requirement to handle veterans’ cases differently.

The reason is that immigration enforcement basic training includes a lesson on including veteran status on paperwork, officials said, though that same lesson plan’s list of mandatory questions doesn’t include one about military service.

And if veterans are identified, none of the agencies involved have consistent means to track what happens to them. It might be noted on one form, but that information doesn’t go into the multiple databases used, preventing any electronic searches.

“Because ICE does not maintain complete electronic data on potentially removable veterans it encounters, ICE does not know exactly how many veterans have been placed in removal proceedings or removed, or if their cases have been handled according to ICE’s policies,” the reporter found.

And, the report found, once deported, living abroad made it more difficult for veterans to access the benefits they earned while serving, such as disability or retirement pay.

“For example, a removed veteran may not be able to attend a hearing to appeal a VA disability rating decision because VA conducts those hearings exclusively in the United States,” the report found.

The GAO’s recommendations focused mostly on following policies ICE already has, including to ensure consistent application of them and to create a new policy requiring officials to specifically ask about military service in interviews.

There was also a recommendation to input that data into electronic databases, to more easily track veterans subject to deportation or who have already left.

DHS agreed with the findings, according to the report, saying that ICE had plans to update guidance and training materials to accurately record service info, ensure it is reviewed before issuing a NTA and that veterans in the system can be tracked through electronic databases.

At the same time, lawmakers have tried to apply legislation to the issue.

In 2017, the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would create a new path to citizenship for veterans who had been deported for criminal offenses.

Called the “Repatriate Our Patriots Act,” it would bar their deportations and ensure legal permanent residency following sentencing.

“If you are willing to put your life on the line to defend this great nation and its values, you should be able to become a U.S. citizen,” bill sponsor Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska said in a statement after its announcement. “It is inexcusable that service members who risked it all to protect us would be put through the deportation process.”

It has been with the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security since.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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