Just days after administration officials vowed to provide more support and benefits to deported veterans, a pair of congressmen are pushing instead for a new pathway to citizenship for those individuals to better honor their military service.
On Monday, Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, introduced the Repatriate Our Patriots Act, which would allow U.S. military veterans deported for nonviolent crimes to receive expedited consideration for permanent citizenship. It would also prohibit the deportation of military veterans for any reason except serious, violent crimes.
It follows similar legislation introduced last week by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., that would mandate a new visa program for the veterans to once again become legal permanent residents of the United States.
“If you are willing to put your life on the line to defend this great nation and our values, you should be able to become a U.S. citizen,” Young said in a statement. “It is inexcusable that service members who risked it all to protect us would be put through the deportation process.”
The legislation is expected to apply to only a few hundred individuals, but supporters say the symbolism of American officials deporting honorably discharged veterans for minor crimes undermines public faith in the military and the country.
Defense officials have said about 5,000 non-American citizens enlist in the military each year. Those individuals must be legal permanent residents of the United States and cannot have a criminal record.
While in the service, those immigrants are eligible for expedited naturalization for themselves and their family members, but advocates have complained the process is often confusing and unnecessarily complicated. In some cases, immigrants have left the service believing they fulfilled their obligations to become citizens, only to learn later they did not.
In those cases, even nonviolent crimes — including drug and alcohol offenses that may stem from post-traumatic stress and other service injuries — can result in deportation.
Earlier this month, VA Secretary Denis McDonough and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced new initiatives to reach out to those veterans and their families.
They include better identification and communication with those individuals abroad, making information on veterans benefits available to them, and providing access to coronavirus vaccines to them.
“It’s our responsibility to serve all veterans as well as they have served us, no matter who they are, where they are from, or the status of their citizenship,” McDonough said in a statement. “Keeping that promise means ensuring that noncitizen service members, veterans, and their families are guaranteed a place in the country they swore an oath — and in many cases fought — to defend.”
But lawmakers said that doesn’t go far enough.
Under the new bill, individuals who were honorably discharged and were not convicted of serious crimes — things such as murder, rape, child abuse and terrorism — could go through the naturalization while living abroad. The Department of Homeland Security would be required to better track them and their families, and provide information on the citizenship process to them.
It would also mandate the U.S. Attorney General “cancel or rescind a removal order that affects any eligible veteran, and subsequently change his or her status to legal permanent resident,” provided they did not commit a violent crime.
“As we work to reform our immigration system, we must include bringing our veterans who have served our country back home,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “It is inexcusable that the United States deported its veterans instead of working with them to get the help they needed.”
No timetable has been set for when lawmakers may consider the new bill or Duckworth’s legislation.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.