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Hispanic Caucus to VA Secretary: Help Stop Veteran Deportations

U.S. veteran Hector Barajas works in his office at the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

WASHINGTON — The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has asked Veterans Affairs to step in to assist non-citizen service members after meeting with deported veterans across the border.

Members of the caucus traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, at the beginning of the month, where deported veterans told lawmakers that, among other challenges of being separated from their families, they were now unable to access their VA health benefits.

Lawmakers visited the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, nicknamed “The Bunker.” Operated by 82nd Airborne veteran Hector Barajas, who was deported in 2004 after serving two years in prison on a gun charge, the center helps vets with immediate needs such as housing and food, helps them acquire identification in Mexico and helps connect them with legal assistance. “Ultimately, we hope to see an end to the need of our services as we advocate for political legislation which would prohibit the deportation of United States service personnel, both former and current,” the center declares on its Facebook page.

Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) and Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Lou Correa (D-Calif.), Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) and Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) met some of the veterans and toured the facility.

As of January, 10,644 non-citizens were serving in the U.S. military. In the reserves, there were an additional 11,524 non-citizens. Serving the country doesn’t automatically confer citizenship — and the CHC argues that military recruiters need to be clear about this — but can expedite the regular citizenship procedures. The federal government does not track deported veterans, but veterans groups and immigration advocates have tallied more than 3,000 cases within an unspecified time period, the CHC said.

In March, Grijalva introduced the Veterans Visa and Protection Act of 2017 that would direct the Department of Homeland Security to “establish a program to permit eligible deported noncitizen veterans to enter the United States as, and to permit eligible noncitizen veterans in the United States to adjust their status to that of, a noncitizen lawfully admitted for permanent residence” and “cancel the removal of eligible noncitizen veterans and allow them to similarly adjust their status.”

Eligible veterans under the bill would not have been “ordered removed, or removed, from the United States due to a criminal conviction for a crime of violence or for a crime that endangers U.S. national security for which the noncitizen served at least five years’ imprisonment.” The DHS could waive eligibility requirements for “humanitarian purposes, to assure family unity, due to exceptional service in the U.S. Armed Forces.” Non-citizen veterans could only be deported under the Grijalva bill for a conviction for a violent crime.

On Monday, caucus members asked VA Secretary David Shulkin for an “urgent” meeting “to discuss how we can immediately stop the federal government from deporting United States veterans who were lawful permanent residents (LPR) at the time of their deportation.”

“We would also like to discuss ways that the federal government and, specifically, the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department can provide deported veterans living outside of the U.S. with the support, resources and services they have earned by serving our nation,” the letter added, noting that current deportees included veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

One “prominent issue” deported veterans “continue to face is access to health care,” lawmakers wrote. “Though many of these former service members qualify for VA health benefits, they are currently unable to obtain these vital, lifesaving services they need to address injuries and disabilities sustained while serving our country.”

The caucus wants to work with the VA “to identify administrative fixes that increase available resources for these service members and facilitate access to the healthcare services many of these deported veterans urgently need,” the letter added.

“…In order to prevent future veteran deportations, it is critical that we also discuss steps the VA can presently take to improve information and outreach to veterans regarding citizenship eligibility and to facilitate the citizenship application process for active duty and recently separated LPR service members.”