Ahead of Veterans Day, Grijalva pushes bill to protect ex-military members from deportation

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva once again pressed Congress to protect veterans from deportation and provide former military members a pathway to citizenship on Friday.

Joined by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Grijalva introduced the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, which he said would prohibit the deportation of immigrant veterans who are not violent offenders, streamline the citizenship process and provide veterans  a pathway to citizenship through their military service, and ensure those who have been deported already can access the VA healthcare services they are entitled to.

Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced a similar bill in the Senate as part of a package of legislation designed to protect military members. The House version of the bill has the support of 18 Democrats, Grijalva said.

“I’ve met too many immigrants who served in uniform that were shamefully deported from our country. We as a nation have a responsibility to keep the promises we made to care for our service men and women in return for their sacrifices, including creating a clear process for naturalization,” Grijalva said. “I’m proud to reintroduce the Veterans Visa and Protection Act with Senator Duckworth ahead of Veterans Day to safeguard veterans from deportation, bring those whom have been deported home and honor the benefits they are owed. It’s past time to codify protections for our immigrant veterans and end this disgraceful practice.”

Grijlava said many deported veterans struggle to get basic medical care, even while veterans struggle with higher rates of
post-traumatic stress disorder and physical health problems like chronic
pain than the general population. 

“Many deported veterans are also
separated from their families and their children who live in the U.S.,
while those deported to Mexico or Central America are especially
vulnerable to threats from gangs and drug cartels due to their military
experience,” he said. 

“Far too many men and women willing to wear our uniform have been deported by the same nation they sacrificed to defend due to the unnecessary and complex barriers that they faced during the naturalization process,” Duckworth said. “On Veterans Day and every other day, we should be honoring all of our veterans—including our immigrant service-members. That’s why I’m proud to reintroduce this package that would help make it easier for them to become citizens, live with their families and ensure those who have already been deported can come back on U.S. soil to access the life-saving VA care they earned and deserve, but may currently be barred from accessing.

“These veterans fought for this country, and it’s past time we fight for them too,” Duckworth said.

Around 70,000 non-citizens enlisted in the U.S. military from 1999 to 2008, according to data compiled by the Center for Naval Analysis, a research and development center for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. However, in June 2010 fewer than half of the legal residents who joined the military filed to become citizens. In 2017, the Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern University published an analysis of federal data and found that the government had improperly detained more than 260 U.S. citizens in immigration cases.

As a consequence when many veterans re-entered civilian life, health and
mental issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction
to drugs and alcohol meant that many veterans faced deportation
proceedings following their criminal convictions.

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order creating the
Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative—designed to help U.S.
military personnel and veterans apply for naturalization or
humanitarian parole. However, by Feb. 2023, only a dozen veterans
deported to Mexico were able to receive citizenship and stay in the U.S. Dozens of others remain in limbo.

During an interview in 2016, Hector Barajas Varela told the Tucson Sentinel that hundreds of men and women who served were deported to at least 34 countries. Barajas, the founder of the Deported Veterans Support House, an organization based in Tijuana, Mexico said the U.S. deported men drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and those who volunteered to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

“There’s no honor in deporting veterans,” he said. “Support our troops shouldn’t just be a sticker, but something that should bring everybody on board,” Barajas said.

In one such case, George Ybarra, a decorated Marine veteran, struggled for three decades to convince federal officials he was a U.S. citizen.

Despite his service and clear documentation that Ybarra was a citizen of the country he fought for, U.S. officials repeatedly challenged his right to be in the country, deporting him once and attempting to do so again a decade later. Meanwhile, Ybarra’s own experiences in the Persian Gulf war had marked him, and for the next decade he struggled with severe PTSD symptoms and drug use—culminating in an episode in which he hallucinated and fired a rifle at two Phoenix police officers and spent seven years in prison for assault.

After his release from prison in 2017, immigration officials again sought to deport him. With his citizenship in doubt, Ybarra repeatedly lost access to veterans’ services, and over the last decade “struggled to stay on his feet and have a place to live,” said Luis Parra, a Nogales attorney.

However, by June 2022, Ybarra finally prevailed when a judge ruled he was indeed a citizen. Months later, Ybarra was killed in a rollover car crash.

For the last seven years, Grijalva has pushed for this legislation after introducing a similar bill in 2016. While that bill had backing from 22 members of Congress, it died in a subcommittee. Grijalva and Duckworth have reintroduced the bill each year since, including submitting the bill to both the Senate and House last year.