By Cindy Carcamo, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
ROSARITO, Mexico — Keeping tabs on his U.S. citizenship application wasn’t much of a priority for Marine Cpl. Rohan Coombs when he served in the Persian Gulf War.
The aircraft maintenance specialist had more pressing concerns: The safety of his comrades as bombs rained down and people died around him in the desert.
Coombs, who came to the U.S. legally from Jamaica as a child and enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 20, served six years in the military. Eventually, he settled in Tustin, Calif., and figured he was a U.S. citizen because he’d fought for his country.
He was wrong. Like hundreds of other men and women who served in the U.S. military, Coombs faces deportation and banishment from the country he went to war for after being arrested. In his case, he was arrested several times for possession for use or sale of marijuana.
Just south of the U.S.-Mexico border in Rosarito, a contingent of about a dozen veterans who call themselves the “Banished Veterans” are lobbying to change an immigration act that allows legal residents who commit certain crimes to be deported, despite his or her military service. The group has launched a website, Facebook page and created a network of advocates and attorneys who provide legal and emotional support to U.S. veterans who face deportation.
“What is happening in these cases is so unjust, so unfair and so outrageous,” said Craig R. Shagin, an immigration lawyer in Pennsylvania who represents deported U.S. veterans. “It’s not about being nice to a guy. It’s about realizing that because of what he did, he is an American. … He wore the uniform.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they don’t take the decision to deport a veteran lightly. Deportable offenses can range from murder or domestic violence to cashing a wrong check or drug possession.
If a veteran is to be removed, it has to be authorized by the senior leadership, ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.
“ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate,” she stated.
More than 70,000 non-citizens enlisted in the U.S. military – about 4 percent of the armed forces – from fiscal year 1999 to 2008, according to the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. Those who are in the country illegally are not allowed to join.
Less than half of the legal residents who joined the military during the same period had become U.S. citizens as of June 2010, the center said. Estimates for the number of deported veterans range from the hundreds to the thousands. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they don’t keep track of that statistic, but will in the near future.
Coombs is in his third year of immigration detention in El Centro, fighting deportation to Jamaica after his 2008 arrest and conviction on possession for sale of marijuana.
He said he first started using pot just to help him with anxiety after he returned from war. Later, he said, he also started to sell some of the drug to his friends who knew he could get it.
“Nobody told me I could be in this situation,” the 45-year-old said about his deportation fight. “The whole time I thought I was a citizen.”
The ramifications can be grave for veterans who never become U.S. citizens and get into trouble.
A 1996 immigration law – and others that came after – expanded a list of offenses that can lead to deportation for a legal resident. Currently, legal residents can be deported if they are convicted of an aggravated felony under immigration law. However, the definition of what constitutes an aggravated felony is broad – it can be anything from drug possession to murder to writing a bad check or theft.
Jerry Lopez, who lives in Rosarito, says he was ordered deported in 2004 after a series of crimes – including theft and smuggling people into the country illegally.
“That was the last piece of proof that I was even in the military,” he said, pointing to a discolored life insurance card that spelled out “Veterans Authorization Card.”
“Just like us. We faded,” said the 38-year-old. “When you get deported, you get wiped out, pretty much. It’s like you’re erased and never existed.”
Lopez said he grew up in a rough Chicago suburb, lived on the streets as a teen and mugged people for money. He said he straightened out his life after joining the U.S. Navy. He loaded bombs into aircrafts on the flight deck of a carrier to help enforce no-fly zones over Iraq.
He was switched from ordnance detail after breaking his leg while loading a bomb. His behavior after being moved to an administrative position following the injury ultimately led to him being discharged from the Navy. He said he doesn’t know whether it was honorable or dishonorable.
Military officials said they cannot release information on whether a service member was honorably or dishonorably discharged.
Now, he said he’s leading a life “for the good” in Rosarito and believes he deserves U.S. citizenship after putting his life at risk serving in Iraq. He says he has a steady job detailing vehicles and as a security bouncer at a local bar.
Shagin said the immigration law is unfair to veterans who may have gotten into trouble because of post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental or physical injuries brought on by service to their country.
“If an American former Marine sells marijuana, he goes to jail. If a Mexican former U.S. Marine sells marijuana, he goes to jail and gets deported,” Shagin said. “That’s what’s wrong. They should both be punished, according to the law.
“The issue is do you differentiate? And say, ‘Yes, even though you were an American once in uniform, now you’re not and we’re going to send you back to Mexico or wherever you came from.’ “
The fact that someone wore a uniform should not keep them from obeying the law, said Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis.
“You can serve the nation honorably in uniform but have to adhere to society’s laws once you take the uniform off,” Davis said. “Just because you served honorably in uniform doesn’t mean you should have more rights and privileges as any other American or any other visitor to our country may enjoy.”
Victor Hinojosa Jr., a Vietnam veteran and U.S.-born citizen who lives in Rosarito, wants to make sure the banished veterans get what’s owed them.
U.S. veterans are still eligible for benefits, such as free health care, at a Veterans Affairs office, even after they are deported. However, most can’t get the benefits unless they enter the United States illegally – and that would be a felony.
Hinojosa, who grew up in Anaheim, Calif., said he is speaking with Veterans Administration officials to find a way to legally take the Rosarito veterans to the U.S. for the health checkups.
“I don’t want to see these guys suffering,” he said. “I want to be on the bus that takes these guys across the border to get their wounds treated.”
Since 2002, it has been easier for non-citizen recruits to become citizens. President George W. Bush signed an executive order that allows all non-citizens who have served honorably for one day during the war on terrorism to apply for U.S. citizenship. Previously, non-citizen service members waited three years before becoming eligible for U.S. naturalization.
Still, veterans have to apply and put in the proper paperwork to become citizens. Members of the Banished Veterans group said they didn’t see the need because they thought they’d become U.S. citizens when they took the oath to serve the country. Others, like Coombs, believed their service would protect them from deportation.
Currently, there is no legislation that would give relief to non-citizen veterans facing deportation. A bill was introduced several years ago by Congressman Bob Filner, D-Calif., a ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to protect immigrant veterans from deportation. It didn’t go anywhere, Shagin said.
There isn’t much hope for a bill passing now, he added.
“To even talk about immigration is poisonous,” he said. “It’s toxic.”
Cindy Carcamo writes for The Orange County Register.