Leave No One Behind: Keeping Our Promise to Deported Veterans

What if a country full of self-described patriots who claim to love their veterans were actively banishing them from the home they thought they fought for? Veterans who came to the US as immigrants, swore a lifetime oath, and served in uniform are being sent away. Deported back to countries they left in order to become Americans. This is unacceptable to many of us. Due to crimes committed (often exacerbated by their wartime service), they are sent away after paying their debt to society, unable to access their VA benefits and get the help they need. We believe strongly that this amounts to a form of double jeopardy. The US government does not even keep track of how many veterans they have deported, but hundreds are currently known.

In recent years, veterans like Alex Murillo, Miguel Lopez, Hector Barajas and others have been organizing and coordinating with activists in the US to change this situation, such as recent VFP direct lobbying efforts in New Mexico. One recent case that typifies the issue here in the Central Valley is that of Joaquin Sotelo. A former Navy corpsman and Iraq War veteran who came to the US from Mexico as a child, Joaquin struggled to cope with post traumatic stress leading to an arrest and conviction for felony domestic violence. He served a prison sentence while seeking counseling, eventually becoming certified to be a counselor himself. When he left prison he was taken by ICE to an immigrant detention facility for a further eighteen months pending deportation hearings. Since last fall, local and Bay Area activists have shown up at his hearings to protest ICE and stand in solidarity with Joaquin and his family. In January, Joaquin’s deportation proceedings were put on hold and he was released until his next court date later this year.

Joaquin Sotelo (pictured in Navy uniform) with local supporters from the veterans community in Fresno, February 2019
Eduardo Castro (L) and Jackson Shepherd (R) of Veterans For Peace Chapter 180 stand in solidarity with Joaquin Sotelo outside of the ICE office in Fresno, February 2019

Fresno’s VFP Chapter 180 recently hosted a workshop by Bay Area VFP member Alfredo Figueroa, an OIF and OEF combat veteran that recently graduated from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. His informative workshop is entitled “Leave No One Behind: Keeping Our Promises to Deported Veterans” and offers “a space to critically analyze the current climate for our deported veterans, inform about policies impacting immigrant soldiers, and build tangible solutions in order for us to stand in solidarity.” In it, Alfredo presented alarming facts while also humanizing the matter, and he dispelled several myths and clarified important details within this complex issue.

One sticking point for some is the fact that deportation occurred after the veterans were convicted of some kind of criminal offense. This is true. As Alfredo put it in his workshop, none of our advocacy is to excuse or condone criminal behavior. These veterans did commit offenses, but they paid their debt in the form of jail time and fines. The deportation is a cruel additional injustice that is a bridge too far considering the totality of the circumstances. At issue here is that due to their military service, often in combat, these individuals deserve access to their hard-earned veterans benefits so they can get the help they need. He asked us to think back to our time in service: “We all remember times when soldiers messed up. It happens. But what did we do? Did we turn our backs on them and throw them away like garbage? No we did not. We worked with them, re-trained them, maybe were hard on them, but they are our family and ultimately they are our responsibility.”

There are efforts underway to address this issue. We urge YOU to contact your representatives and demand that they support HR 1078, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act. Some additional steps we ask for are laid out by the Deported Veterans Advocacy Project, which calls for:

1. Call for Legislation for the United States Code to clearly state: “The following shall be nationals*, but not citizens of the United States: (1) A person who, by conscription or enlistment, entered any branch of the United States armed forces.  This shall be retroactive to service-persons previously removed from the United States.” 2. Call for the Department of Homeland Security to stay the immediate removal of U.S. veterans from the United States 3. Repatriation: “Welcome our Veterans Home” 4. Educational outreach programs to the American people and veterans organizations nationally.

*The United States code provides: that the term “National of the United States” means (a) a citizen of the U.S., (b) a person, who though not a citizen of the United States, owes permanent allegiance to the United States of America.” (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(22))  Service members have taken a permanent oath of allegiance as part of their enlistment oath.  The oath of enlistment is almost identical to the oath of naturalization, so therefore all U.S. veterans should be granted national status automatically.

As mentioned above, groups like the Brown Berets, VFP Chapter 180 and ICE Out of Fresno as well as many individuals have been consistent in showing up and being a visible presence for Joaquin here in Fresno, resulting in some success. Another vet, Hector Barajas was recently granted his citizenship after receiving a pardon from the California governor. Activism is sometimes effective. But this is not the case for everyone. Fresh on people’s minds around here is Enrique Salas, a Marine veteran from nearby Reedley who had been deported to Mexico many years ago and was in failing health. In April 2018 he died and his body was shipped back to his family here for burial. The living breathing human being was denied entry, but his corpse was allowed back for military “honors.” Is this the best we can do? He was good enough for burial honors, but not treatment in a VA hospital where he should have been? We shamefully left a sick veteran to perish in a foreign land, and for what? We are determined to not let this happen again. Not one more.

Grave of US Marine veteran Enrique Salas, who passed away in 2018 after years of banishment from the country he served.

This is why this issue is important to Veterans For Peace and this is why we will continue to stand in solidarity, until all our brothers and sisters are returned home. A student of mine who attended the recent workshop later conveyed how what she learned at the workshop reminded her of lyrics from the song I Wish It Were True by White Buffalo. They sum it up well:

Country, I was a soldier to you
I did what you asked me to
It was wrong, and you knew

Country, now I’m just a stranger to you
A number, a name; it’s true
Throw me away when you’re through

Home of the brave and the free; the red, white, and blue
I wish it was true

Hector Lopez, Vietnam veteran and co-director of Unified Deported Veterans stands at the US-Mexican border

This issue says a lot more about us as a society than it does about the individual mistakes some former servicemembers make when they leave service. We ask them to join, we demand their loyalty, we send them to war. We owe a debt of gratitude and a national apology for this shameful treatment of our own.

We are a country that pats itself on the back for looking after our troops, but when it really matters, is that what we do?

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