Few options for veterans who await deportation
Some say their military service merits special consideration
By Steve Liewer, Union-Tribune
left: American Veteran Fernando Cervantes held a bill that would spare the Army veteran from being deported. (Hiram Soto / Union-Tribune news)
As a 7-year-old, Fernando Cervantes emigrated legally from Mexico to Texas with his mother in 1961. At 18, in the waning days of the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army. Cervantes donned the khaki uniform, raised his right hand and swore to defend the Constitution. “I thought it was my patriotic duty,” he said.
Thirty-two years after his honorable discharge, Cervantes is wearing the bright-orange shirt of a detainee at the El Centro Service Processing Center, where he has been held since the end of a three-year prison term last year for possession of methamphetamine for sale.
Barring an act of Congress, he will be deported to Mexico, a country he hasn’t visited since 1970. "I have no one in Mexico.
Everything in my life is here," said Cervantes, 55, of Victorville, CA. "It’s very scary."
About 32,000 foreign-born detainees await deportation at roughly 350 facilities nationwide – including the one in El Centro and another in Otay Mesa – operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] or its contractors.
An estimated 45 percent are legal residents who committed crimes ranging from murder to drug possession and were turned over to ICE after their prison terms.
No one has a reliable count of how many of them served in the U.S. armed forces. Rob Baker, field director of ICE’s San Diego office, ventured an estimate of half a percent, or fewer than 200 nationwide. Veterans Advocate Jan Ruhman of Rancho Bernardo, a Vietnam War vet who works with several pro-peace Veterans groups, believes the figure is about 3,000.
[Note: VT is awaiting documented evidence of how accurate the number really is before making a commitment on actual number, but even 200 is one too many. Even in the incidence of murder, the Veteran should be tried and convicted as "any" American Soldier would be. Held in a U.S. prison not deported nor lose the citizenship they earned more than most people born here].
The message we have for the 141 U.S. troops naturalized in Baghdad back in 2007 and any legal or illegal immigrant thinking about joining the Army, or Marines is this: Whatever the total, the deportation of Veterans raises serious questions about our government’s responsibility to foreign-born noncitizens who have worn the uniform and, in some cases, shed blood in America’s defense. Especially after our government has gone all out on a sales campaign to attract immigrants into fighting and dying for our nation and then abandoned them or worse yet detain and treat them like any other terrorist. Minus the torture we pray.
Detained veterans believe they merit special consideration because of their military service. Some have sought out lawyers to press their case and have written letters to legislators, both to no avail.
[Politicians, as in the case of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are quick to sell the military to Immigrants as they eloquently speak at stage Naturalization ceremonies for propaganda purposes to add to the sales pitch, and in order to avoid the draft but remain silent when the sales pitch goes sour or a few hundred to a few thousands of these lured with promises of U.S. citizenship end up facing deportation. VT]
"There’s people like me who will step up and defend this country," said Rohan Coombs, 45, a Jamaica-born Marine and Persian Gulf War veteran from Tustin, CA who was stationed at Camp Pendleton for part of his six-year tenure.
He served time for drug crimes and is now at the El Centro facility.
"I’m not saying I’m a saint, but I think I deserve the right to stay here," Coombs said.
Heather Boxeth, a San Diego attorney who handles criminal defense and immigration cases, is representing Coombs and another detained veteran for free.
"I’m not from a military family, and I’m not an Army brat," she said. "But I thought there was something wrong with this."
Plenty of people, though, said living in the United States is a privilege that foreigners forfeit with criminal behavior – even if they’re veterans.
"If they’ve not gotten citizenship, I have no qualms about deporting them," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Tom Richards of Rancho Bernardo, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who heads the state’s Legion of Valor. "The moral of the story is, you shouldn’t become a convicted felon."
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Lakeside, is an Iraq war veteran who has helped foreign-born Marines under his command become U.S. citizens. He said veterans who have committed crimes deserve due process, but no more.
"If the law says you get deported, then that’s what happens," Hunter said.
[Republican Duncan Hunter (or his father if he was an Iraq War Vet) ran in the Republican primaries against Senator John McCain among others with strong right-wing Veteran support from pro-war and nationalistic groups like Gathering of Eagles. The same type Swift Boat Veterans for Bush "swifties" types who smeared the military reputations of Max Cleland, John Kerry, John Murtha, and of course John McCain (twice 2000 and 2008) VT].
Until 1996, the law subjected foreigners to deportation only for the most serious crimes and gave immigration judges wide latitude to consider special circumstances.
[The question remains how special do Immigration Judges, especially if they or theirs refuse to serve in the Armed Forces really treat military service to our nation in balancing their decisions. In most case, Immigration judges are ICE officials not federal judges in the true sense of the word. VT]
1996, as part of a broad revision of immigration laws, [commonly known as illegal immigrant amnesty], Congress expanded the list of aggravated felonies for which foreign-born residents can be deported and greatly limited judicial discretion. The revised list includes murder, kidnapping, rape and other violent crimes as well as forgery, theft and possession of drugs with the intent to sell.
"It sounds really good: Let’s deport people who commit crimes. But usually, it’s not significant crimes," said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an attorney in Alaska who volunteers with the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Military Assistance Program.
Most of the veterans facing deportation were convicted of drug possession, Stock and other lawyers said.
Incarcerated Veteran Coombs said he started smoking marijuana frequently after his wife, Pamela, died in 2001 from diabetes-related complications.
"It started out as something that helped me go to sleep," said Coombs, former manager of a Frazee Paint store. "To support my habit, I started getting a little extra (to sell)." He has been arrested three times and imprisoned once for marijuana violations.
Cervantes, a journeyman carpenter, started using methamphetamine in the early 1980s while working two jobs to support his wife and two children. Three times he has served jail terms of less than a year for producing, holding or selling drugs. A fourth conviction in 2006, for sale and possession of less than 1 gram of meth, landed him in state prison and, eventually, in El Centro [under California’s three strikes law.VT]
"For all these years, I thought I was an American citizen" because of the military service, Cervantes said. "To say that I was surprised would be an understatement."
As far back as the American Revolution, the military has relied on foreign-born troops to fill its ranks. Green-card holders always have been subject to the military draft.
As our lead in confirms, the Pentagon has offered foreign-born residents a fast track to citizenship in times of war. But Coombs and Cervantes said they didn’t think that option was important because recruiters had told them they would automatically become citizens once they enlisted.
[Another lesson we need to get out to young immigrants thinking about joining the military -DO NOT believe everything a military recruited assigned a quota tells you or promises you. Don’t take our word for it just ask the thousands of WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War Military Retirees who filed lawsuits against our government and military recruiters who lied to them, and they were born here. VT]
Their deportation cases drew outside attention after Coombs’ fiancée wrote an e-mail that found its way to Ruhman, the veterans advocate. He met with Coombs and, over time, learned that at least 10 veterans were among the 500 detainees at the El Centro facility.
[We need to check with VVA or some other progressive leaning VSO to see how many members it takes to form an incarcerated Veterans Chapter to a Veterans Service Organization to gain these folks clout, recognition, and honor their service even if they sit o death row. VT]
"I support ’em because I’m a (expletive) Marine, and Marines don’t leave anyone behind," Ruhman said. He contacted Boxeth, and the two have reached out to Veterans advocates, including VT News Network, and Our Troops News Ladder, plus human-rights lawyers around the country. They’re trying to assess exactly how many other veterans are awaiting deportation.
[VT and Our Troops News Ladder has the ability to spread this disgrace throughout the active duty military community serving in-country Iraq and Afghanistan plus to Military Families around the world. It is an issue that deserve expose and even debate within the military. Should there be too many negative feelings towards immigrants who serve and become Veterans than maybe it is way past time to cease the practice of hiring the foreign born and implement THE DRAFT? VT]
So far, they haven’t had much luck. They must be invited by a detainee before being allowed onto the grounds of a detention facility.
[Legal assessment at VT is that Veterans who are Ice detainees unless they can form VSO incarcerated chapters with access to Veterans activists outside the prison are reluctant or discouraged from inviting attention to them. VT]
Boxeth said the legal system offers little hope of stopping the deportations because judges have lost most of that authority. ICE does give field-office directors the right to review veterans’ cases. Baker, whose region includes San Diego and Imperial counties, said he sees about 10 cases a year involving Veterans. He said he has never stopped proceedings on a case solely because of someone’s military record.
"I admire their service to our country," said Baker, who spent 23 years in the Air Force. "But I don’t think that service qualifies them for an amnesty."
Boxeth said her strategy is to prolong her cases while lobbying legislators to change the law. She met this month with Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Since, Congressman Filner could not be reached for comment, we at VT strongly recommend that readers contact your Senator or Congress person, especially if they sit on the House or Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and assist Attorney Boxeth in getting attention, access, and responses from Veterans Representatives in Congress.
I intend contacting the Ohio politicians who sit on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees to express our outrage at this travesty. If you disagree, and want our fellow brothers and sisters in arms deported by all means you contact your representative in Congress and tell they why!
Boxeth said Congressman Filner has agreed to sponsor a "private bill" granting relief specifically to Cervantes, though congressional analysts said few of such measures pass. Boxeth said Filner also is considering broader legislation that would give foreign-born service members and veterans – including those already deported – the same rights as noncitizen U.S. nationals, such as people born in certain U.S. territories and possessions.
The change would shield them from being deported or allow them to return to the United States if they have left.
"These are still people who fought in our wars," Boxeth said. "I don’t think enough of the American public knows what’s going on."
Steve Liewer: (619) 542-4572; [email protected]
We here at Veteran Today and Our Troops News Ladder strongly recommend that your contact your Senators and Congress persons and let them know how you feel pro or con about these legislative efforts to prevent the deportation of American Veterans without forgiving their crimes. If they do the crime then they should do the time here in the nation they defended!
The story of American Veterans facing deportation was brought to our attention by Veterans for Peace (VFP) and their pro bono legal counsel in Southern California with this media coverage from Sign on San Diego.
Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I’ve posted on Veterans Today, I’ve had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner.
My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me.
Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000.
I’ve been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I’m now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house.
I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.