Deported Veterans Look To Biden Administration For Help
Speaker 1: 00:00 Over the past several decades, hundreds, or maybe thousands of us, military veterans have been deported for committing crimes after they left the service. Well, now many are looking to the Biden administration, hoping for the chance to finally return to the United States, KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh says some vets have waited four years for others. Their time has run out. Speaker 2: 00:23 Jose Velazco came to the us from Mexico as a child, as a green card holder, he was drafted during the Vietnam war era, charged with assault with a deadly weapon and deported three years ago at age 76. He's now living into Juana. Speaker 3: 00:40 I never, I never even knew Tijuana didn't have anybody here. I'm sitting here. I felt like the sky was coming down on me. Velazco Speaker 2: 00:51 Is one of the former us service members who were trying to get back to the country where they served and lived most of their lives, his health declining. He knows the clock is ticking. Hector brah Haas runs the deported veterans support house in Tijuana, a place nicknamed the bunker Rojas was deported himself, but was able to become a citizen. After he was pardoned by the governor of California, like many people, he started the citizenship process while he was still in the army during the first Gulf war. But didn't finish. Never, Speaker 4: 01:28 Never immigration never came up. Not even for my squad leaders. You Speaker 2: 01:33 Know, military service can be a fast track to citizenship, especially during war time. But some people were incorrectly told they automatically become us citizens. When they take the military oath, others lose track of the process as they move around. [inaudible] says the system has been broken for years, but things became particularly difficult under the Trump administration. Speaker 4: 01:56 The administration took away this policy that was in place that made it easier to become a citizen when you're in military. And so now it's better if you file for your citizenship, when you're out of the military, Speaker 2: 02:07 It's faster. Richard Avalon has been in Tijuana for a decade after being deported because of a felony immigration charge. He came to the U S as a child and volunteered to join the Marines at the tail end of the Vietnam era. He speaks Spanish with a thick American accent that draws unwanted detention in Mexico. The Speaker 5: 02:27 Word is Portugal. It's kind of a derogatory term, uh, meaning that you're Mexican raised in America. In other words, kind of like a trader cause you're not a Mexico here you're raised in the U Speaker 2: 02:38 S advocates are asking the Biden administration to reverse policies that make it harder for troops to apply for citizenship and reinstate a program that walks them through the process before they leave bootcamp. Jenny Pascarella with the ACLU of Southern California also wants a moratorium on deporting veterans and for those already Speaker 6: 02:59 To create a pathway so that they can return home. And that's where I think that the administration could adopt a policy or a process that would allow for reopening their immigration for Speaker 2: 03:11 Some, any changes already come too late. Norma Opa-locka remembers telling her mother that time had run out for her brother, a former Marine. Speaker 7: 03:21 So I said, don't let it hit you right now. Let's get in the car and it's good. Speaker 2: 03:28 Uh, Roswell Opa-locka died of a heart attack in Mexico while waiting to return to the U S for a second immigration hearing. He fought his deportation for more than a decade only to die less than two months before his case would be heard. We never Speaker 7: 03:42 Imagined that my brother would have ended up deported as a veteran to Mexico. My parents, my brothers, um, we're all here in the United States. Speaker 2: 03:52 All of the veterans caught in this cycle have felonies on their record. Still Norma says they serve their country. Speaker 7: 04:00 People made mistakes. They paid a price. They need to be given an opportunity to do best, not by getting rid of them by sending them here. You're somebody else's problem Speaker 2: 04:11 Though, at the moment, little has changed. This story Speaker 1: 04:14 Was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Speaker 2: 04:25 Joining us now is Speaker 1: 04:26 Steve Walsh, KPBS, military reporter, Steve, Speaker 2: 04:29 Welcome. Hi Jade. Speaker 1: 04:31 So the veterans being deported all have felonies on their record. What's the argument for deporting someone after they've already served their time and Speaker 2: 04:40 The country. There you go. That's exactly what the deported vets are saying is that they've gone through. They served their time in, in prison. They, they assumed that they would be able to, to go on with their lives after that. And this is when they find out that they're in fact going to be deported. And when you're talking about, in many, many cases are people who have been here since they're much like the dreamers they've been here since they were children. Um, they may have come here in their teens or, or even younger, and they decided on their own or in the case of, of Alaska, they were, they were drafted into the U S military. And it, you know, their crimes may have occurred in the case of Leslie, let's say a Velazco decades after they served in the military. So they fully saw themselves as, as Americans up until that point. Speaker 1: 05:31 What about veterans seeking citizenship who may be charged with a misdemeanor? I mean, are they facing deportation Speaker 2: 05:37 Too? There is not a lot of really great data on this. We don't really know the whole universe of deported veterans out there because immigration and customs enforcement doesn't track this information in particular. Um, it's clear that some people get caught up on just immigration charges at one point. Now, keep in mind, these are people who, uh, may have actually thought that they were United States citizens because they served in the U S military. The us military oath of service is very similar to the, uh, to the oath of citizenship. And they just may not be aware that they weren't Americans. Hmm. Speaker 1: 06:14 When covering this, did you get the sense that the policies in place actually make it easier for these veterans to become targets of crime? I mean, should they defend themselves and even get caught up in something they could be deported? Right? Speaker 2: 06:28 Well, yes. I mean, it's just like any other person who is, has been, uh, who, who may be a, an immigrant. They, they may want to steer clear of law enforcement, even when they're the victim of a crime fearing, their immigration status could be challenged. And again, with veterans, some of them don't really understand their immigration status. They, they think they are us citizens. You know, some of these people, um, that I talked to serve during the Vietnam war era. And, you know, some of these folks are being charged with crimes again, decades after they served, they may be in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. And back when they were in the service, it just may not have been all that big of a deal in their minds who have not gone through the citizenship process. Speaker 1: 07:11 Hm. And you know, as you've, you've mentioned a couple of times, some people think that if you serve in the U S military, you automatically become a citizen of the U S but that's not the case. So does the military do anything to educate those serving and seeking citizenship? Speaker 2: 07:27 Well, that's one of the things that advocates want to change. There was a program under the Obama administration that actually required the military to walk people through the citizenship process while they're in bootcamp, right at the beginning of their service. So that, you know, they weren't stuck in this cycle. I mean, I'll be honest with you. It can be very difficult. People tell me, uh, to become a us citizenship, a us citizen, even, uh, even before the Trump administration, just because there are multiple hearings, there's a lot of paperwork you have to go through. And you're talking about, you know, 19 and 20 year olds, they're deploying from one base to another, they may be deploying overseas. You still have to go through all of these hearings. It can be a tough thing to keep track of while you're in the service, doing everything that, that is demanded of you in the military. And so Speaker 1: 08:16 Now advocates are looking for the Biden administration to reverse some of those policies. What programs would they like to see in place and what do they want to see happen in the immediate future? Speaker 2: 08:28 Well, first of all, the ACLU of Southern California would just like to see a moratorium on, uh, a moratorium on deportations. Now, as I said earlier, immigration and customs enforcement is supposed to take your veteran status into account before deporting someone and that, and they've said that, uh, that they're really not taking that very seriously right now. So they'd like to see an Outnet more moratorium. They'd like to see a separate process put in place. So, so when somebody is in position, they can go to somebody, uh, they can go through a process, uh, to kind of put some at the head of the line where they can, uh, someone who understands what these veterans are going through. That in fact, they have served and that, uh, and give them that second chance to become a us citizen. I mean, it just, there are things that, um, you know, they're basic things like you have to have your immigration hearing on us soil, so you can't do it, let's say at an embassy or somewhere else around the world. And there's actually one thing that's been kind of discouraging that just recently under the Biden administration, there was, they've just codified a policy that was put in place under, under the Trump administration. That actually makes it a little harder for people to get to the U S for those immigration hearings. You have to exhaust every avenue before getting authorization to cross the border for those hearings. Um, advocates say that takes time. That takes money and it, and it's just incredibly difficult to do. They would like to see that entire process streamlined. Speaker 1: 09:56 I've been speaking to KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh. Steve, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks Jade.