He introduced a bill this week that asks the U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary to allow deported veterans who served in the U.S. military to come back, but only if they were honorably discharged and have not been convicted of felonies or significant misdemeanors.
The bill also aims to prevent the removal of veterans without serious crimes in the future.
“Deportation is no way to thank the men and women who sacrificed so much to serve our country,” stated Gallego, who’s a Marine Corps and Iraq War veteran. “Instead of separating these veterans from their families and the country they love and served, we should recognize the contributions they have made and can continue to make to the United States.”
Gallego is the lead sponsor of the bill, dubbed “Restoring Respect for Immigrant Service in Uniform Act.” The bill’s co-sponsors are U.S. Representatives Ted Lieu of California, Charles Rangel of New York, and Jose Serrano of New York.
Opponents of the bill argue that military service shouldn’t be used to absolve deportees from the crimes they committed that led to their deportation, even though the bill would only benefit deported veterans who’ve committed minor offenses. Supporters, however, applaud the bill.
Hector Barajas, a deported veteran, called it an important first step to getting deported veterans to return home.
But he also noted the bill would likely leave out deported veterans who have been convicted of “aggravated felonies,” which is a term used to describe a category of offenses that make a person eligible for depotation. However, he noted this category includes non-violent and minor crimes.
“I wish it was more inclusive, but it’s still a good bill,” Barajas said.
Barajas served in the U.S. Army for more than five years as a lawful permanent resident. But multiple run-ins with the law led to jail time and deportation.
He was deported twice. The first time was in 2004 for discharging a firearm, considered an offense worthy of deportation. He came back for the birth of his daughter in California and was deported again in 2009 after he encountered police following a fender-bender.
Now he resides in Tijuana, Mexico, where he runs a shelter called Deported Veterans Support House. There, he provides temporary housing for deported veterans as well as a host of other services, including group therapy. He also connects veterans with attorneys.
“It’s frustrating,” he said, describing how it feels to be deported and separated from his 10-year-old daughter, who lives in California: “But I still love my country regardless of the situation.”
It’s difficult to know exactly how many veterans have been deported because the U.S. government doesn’t keep track of such data.
Barajas said there could be hundreds, if not thousands, of veterans who have been deported from the U.S. over the last few decades. He said he has heard from veterans who’ve been deported to about 30 different countries. Most of the deported veterans were legal permanent residents, and only a few were undocumented immigrants.
“A lot of people don’t know that the U.S. government has drafted undocumented immigrants,” he said.
That’s no longer a practice, according to military policy, though there are some undocumented immigrants who enlist using false documents. That’s what Daniel Torres did. The undocumented immigrant from Mexico who grew up in Idaho told NPR he enlisted in 2007 using a false U.S. birth certificate.
“Deportation is no way to thank the men and women who sacrificed so much to serve our country,” said Congressman Ruben Gallego.
He served a tour in Iraq before the military discovered he wasn’t in the country legally and discharged him. Unable to find a job after leaving the military, he left to Mexico and wound up connecting with Barajas.
This week, Torres was able to return to the U.S. with a visa he was granted, thanks to the help of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union. He attended a hearing on Thursday where a judge determined he could become a naturalized citizen because of his military service. A few hours later, Torres was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
“This is huge,” Barajas said. “This is the first time an undocumented veteran returns to the United States.”
He added that he’s hopeful more veterans will be able to return home if Gallego’s bill goes through.
“I’m actually excited about the bill,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”