Immigrant Veterans Face Deportation Even After Serving Out Their Prison Sentences

Undocumented immigrants are hoping that Congress would give them a chance to enlist in the military. CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/ ESTHER Y. LEE
Undocumented immigrants are hoping that Congress would give them a chance to enlist in the military. CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/ ESTHER Y. LEE

At the height of the Vietnam War between 1968 and 1969, Hector Barrios was a 1st Calvary Division draftee. “It was a year — every day incoming fire, everything — fighting, you didn’t know if you were going to come back home,” he recalled in 2012. Barrios sustained head injuries from an explosive device. Barrios said that police arrested him for “being in a car with drugs.” After serving out his prison sentence, he was deported to Mexico for marijuana possession.

“I had a green card. They took it away,” Barrios said in the 2012 interview. “But I have my citizenship of the United States in my service paperwork. I took the oath over there. … I think it’s unjust to deport someone who fought for… the United States. It’s unjust.”

According to the Hispanic News Network, Barrios earned less than $5 a day selling tacos between 3pm and 1am. Last month, Barrios passed away in a decrepit neighborhood of Tijuana.

Barrios is not the only non-citizen military veteran to be deported after serving out his prison sentence. After he was deported, Hector Barajas began an advocacy organization called Banished Veterans, which helps deported veterans settle into a country that some individuals have not seen since they were children. Barajas has been permanently banned from the United States for committing a crime after honorably serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He said that he knows at least 111 other veterans have been deported even though they had served in combat, but there may still be thousands more.

In 1996, Congress overhauled federal immigration system and expanded the definition of “aggravated felonies” to include 20 new crimes like “counterfeit, perjury, and obstruction of justice” and dropped its threshold requirements for deportable prison sentences from five years to one. As a result, it became much easier to deport non-citizens who were convicted of aggravated felonies with no possibility of judicial discretion. Barajas and other soldiers were thus getting deported even after serving out their prison sentences as a form of double punishment. Soldiers are only allowed back to the United States after they die because the government provides a burial plot for them.

“I had two Army commendation medals, a national defense ribbon, and a humanitarian award,” Barajas said to a local CBS affiliate in 2013.

Immigrants have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the American Revolutionary War. According to a 2011 Center for Naval Analyses report, at least 70,000 non-citizens had enlisted between the 1999 and 2008 fiscal years.  Last week, a group of impassioned undocumented immigrants went to Washington, D.C. to make the case to Congress to allow them to join the military. But House members shot down a chance to pass Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R-CA) ENLIST Act, which would have allowed them to enlist in the military and to eventually naturalize. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said that he “support[ed] the principle” of Denham’s measure, but that it was not appropriate to attach it to a national budget policy bill. At the same time, the Pentagon announced last Tuesday that it will review military eligibility requirements to allow some undocumented youths, who were granted temporary legal presence under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.