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Thousands of immigrants take the naturalization oath of allegiance by signing up for Military service in exchange for a promise of citizenship.
But many immigrant veterans have seen that promise broken when they are threatened with deportation. They served in U.S. military as permanent legal residents with green cards. Then, in civilian life, they have committed crimes that have made them eligible for deportation.
Waiting to be released from detention
Norman Mcmaster is one of these veterans. He is currently being held in a detention center in Houston. He was born in Antigua and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 14.
He dropped out of high school to join the military, served three years in the cavalry and was honorably discharged.
He says he was made to believe that joining the military automatically made him a citizen. This isn’t the case.
After the military, he was briefly incarcerated three times on charges of burglary and assault.
Six years after his last prison sentence, he thought he was done. He was on the straight and narrow. But then immigration officials showed up one day at his house.
Even though he’s been in detention for over a year, he remains optimistic and patriotic.
“This country has been good to me and my family, and everyone in my family is a U.S. citizen,” says Mcmaster.
The number of deported vets remains a mystery
No one knows just how many veterans the U.S. has deported. Immigration and customs officials say they don’t keep track, but immigration lawyers and groups formed to help the deportees say possibly thousands of vets have been deported since 1996.
That was the year Bill Clinton signed a law that took away discretion from immigration laws, changing the stakes for immigrant vets.
Craig Shagin is Mcmaster’s lawyer. “The consequence of an aggravated felony is that there is no judicial discretion,” says Shagin, “that means that a judge cannot look at your case and make the sort of decision that ordinary humans would consider making,.”
John Valadez is a director working on a movie about deported veterans. He met two U.S. veteran brothers, Valente and Manuel Valenzuela, who are currently in Colorado appealing their deportations.
They are facing exclusion from the United States for life.
There is one way to reverse deportation once it happens. You can come back into the U.S. after you die.
“Valente recently got a notice saying that there is a place for him in Arlington National Cemetery reserved for him because he was awarded the bronze star for national heroism,” says John Valadez, “so in death he is welcomed into this country as a hero, but in life, he is banished, never to set foot in this country again.”
Lawyer Craig Shagin advocates passionately for leniency for immigrant veterans.
“There are good citizens and there are bad citizens. The way we deal with infractions by citizens is we punish them,” says Shagin, “that’s also what we do to aliens, but for someone who has served in the United states army, particularly in a time of combat, to be then deported and stripped of his nationality seems to me utterly harsh and unreasonable.”
Meanwhile, the strangeness of this story continues. While deported veterans are still eligible for V.A. benefits, the countries they are deported to don’t have V.A. hospitals.