John Emmanuel Ferron is an undocumented father of eight children who honorably served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. But the Jamaican-born man may soon be sent back to a country that he has not seen in 43 years. In late June, Ferron went on a nine-day hunger strike to protest his detention and the deportation of military veterans in general.
Ferron is among the estimated 31 percent of Vietnam War veterans who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, including combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. He is a Christian minister and father to eight U.S.-born children who range between 14 to 33 years old.
He joined the Navy in 1974 by assuming his friend Clyde Anthony Steele’s identity and was recognized with a Length of Service Award for his ten years in the military. After the Department of Veterans Affairs discovered his status, the military stripped Ferron of his benefits and refused to recognize his service. In 2008, Ferron was sent to a federal prison for three years on identity theft charges.
In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) put him in Eloy Detention Center in Arizona to await deportation. He was also denied prosecutorial discretion and detention release. Because Ferron strongly believes that his service in the military should allow him to naturalize, he went on a hunger strike. He was ultimately transported to the medical observation wing and force-fed.
While undocumented immigrants are not allowed to join the military, many immigrants like Ferron choose to serve the United States by using an alternative identity. Other undocumented immigrants use fake IDs to get jobs, a minor offense often exploited by prosecutors to order deportations under a 1996 law that targets immigrants convicted of certain criminal charges, including identity theft.
For some immigrants like Ferron, military service as a pathway to citizenship is seen as the ultimate dedication to the American dream. In the past, some anti-immigration reform opponents argued that legalization in exchange for military service should be a requirement. Yet others see such a trade as little more than a mercenary exchange.
Between 1999 to 2008, more than 70,000 non-citizens enlisted in the military. Less than half those enlisted became U.S. citizens. Under some circumstances, immigrants on temporary visas with specialized skills are given the ability to serve in the military in exchange for citizenship.
Ferron’s years-long detention even after serving his adopted country is complicated, but not rare. Since 2007, hundreds to thousands of veterans were deported, although ICE insists that it does not officially track the number of veteran deportees.
Going on a hunger strike may seem extreme, but faith leaders and immigration advocates across the United States are doing something similar. In Philadelphia, religious leaders will be ending their forty-day fast for immigration reform next week.