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Immigrants Joined The U.S. Army To Become Citizens. Now They’re Being Discharged.

That policy backfired on veterans who joined the military in order to gain citizenship, only to end up being discharged or deported.

Photo by Tommy Gilligan/U.S. Military Academy via U.S. Army/Flickr.

One of the legal pathways to becoming a U.S. citizen is for immigrants to serve in the military.


For some soldiers, that door is now closed. The Associated Press reports that several men and women who were serving in the U.S. military under a special immigrant recruiting program have been discharged, and some face deportation.

An immigration lawyer claims that at least 40 service members have been let go from their duties in the military. Their status in the U.S. is now in limbo. A Pentagon official said they cannot release any information about these cases due to the pending litigation.

One service member who was dismissed was 28-year-old reservist Lucas Calixto, a Brazilian immigrant who has lived in the U.S. since he was 12. He has since filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army.

“It was my dream to serve in the military,” Calixto told The Associated Press. “Since this country has been so good to me, I thought it was the least I could do to give back to my adopted country and serve in the United States military. Now the great feeling I had when I enlisted is going down the drain. I don’t understand why this is happening.”

While The Associated Press reports that some service members were not told why they were being discharged, others stated they were told that because of their immigrant status, they had become a security risk. They asserted that the Defense Department told them that the administration did not do a thorough background check on them.

Photo by Sgt. Brittney Vella/U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr.

Immigrants who serve

Immigrants have been serving in the U.S. military since the inception of this country. It was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, that the U.S. needed more military members to serve in the Middle East. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reports that since Oct. 1, 2001, USCIS has naturalized 125,452 members of the military, with 11,372 of those service members from more than 35 foreign countries becoming citizens during the agency’s naturalization ceremonies.

A 2009 New York Times article that reported on how the U.S. military recruited immigrants to serve in Afghanistan stated that because of “a statute invoked in 2002 by the Bush administration, immigrants who serve in the military can apply to become citizens on the first day of active service, and they can take the oath in as little as six months.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The government ... ‘lost, misplaced, or failed to file the applications of many veterans who applied for naturalization.’[/quote]

That policy seems to have backfired on a number of veterans who joined the military in order to gain citizenship, only to end up being deported.

In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report titled “Discharged Then Discarded: How U.S. Veterans Are Banished by the Country They Swore to Protect” that detailed several cases — at least 59 people — that had served duties in the military and were ultimately deported.

Some of the reasons these service members were deported, according to the ACLU, was because the “federal government failed to ensure that service members were naturalized during military careers, or shortly thereafter.” Meaning, many of the people serving assumed that they were automatically becoming U.S. citizens and didn’t know they had to fill out paperwork. The government failed to inform them about the correct procedures and in some cases, “lost, misplaced, or failed to file the applications of many veterans who applied for naturalization.” Also, according to the ACLU report, service members were not informed about immigration laws that were made in the 1990s, which stated that criminal convictions would prohibit them from completing their U.S. citizen paperwork and could lead to deportation.

Helping deported veterans

For immigrant veterans who are deported, there is help.

An organization based in Tijuana, Mexico, called the Deported Veterans Support House, launched in 2014 in order to help veterans with housing and medical needs after being deported. The facility’s founder, Hector Barajas, was brought to the U.S. as a child. He later served in the Air Force for six years. After his service, he was involved in an incident with a handgun, served two years in prison, and was deported to Mexico despite spending most of his life in the U.S. While in Mexico, he started the support house to help other veterans who were deported.

In June 2017, U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro of Texas went to Tijuana to visit the men living at the Deported Veterans Support House to address the issue of veterans being denied citizenship.

“I think it is important for us to keep making the point that these are folks who put their lives on the line for the United States of America,” Castro said during a May 2018 summit on deported veterans. “And this is the greatest betrayal of somebody who served for a nation who accepts their service and then kicks them out of their country.”

For Barajas, his story took a turn last year when California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him. This year, after 14 years of exile, he was sworn back as a U.S. citizen. Now Barajas is helping deported veterans throughout Latin America.

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