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Grijalva introduces bill to bring deported veterans back to U.S.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva introduced a bill Thursday that would allow deported veterans to return to the United States as lawful permanent residents, and cancel removal proceedings for others.

The Veteran Visa and Protection Act would cover veterans who served in the U.S. military as legal residents, but were deported following convictions for a range of crimes, and permit them to return to the country using a new visa process.

Veterans who return would be eligible for military and veterans benefits normally given to non-citizens, Grijalva said. The bill would not cover veterans who were convicted of violent crimes or crimes that endanger national security.

"The thought that people who have sacrificed so much for our nation's defense and safety are kicked out with such disregard is utterly appalling," Grijalva said. "When someone is willing to lay down their life for the country they love, what more could we want in a fellow citizen?"

"The military teaches no man left behind, but that's exactly what we've done with some of our U.S. veterans," said Jenny Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights for the American Civil Liberties Union in California. "We've presently expelled them from the United States, denying them benefits that they're owed."

Lawful permanent residents can enlist in the military and are eligible to apply for citizenship, but many do not know about the process, Pasquarella said. Instead, many thought that when they took oaths for enlistment they also became U.S. citizens, she said.

Around 70,000 non-citizens enlisted in the U.S. military from 1999 to 2008, according to data compiled by the Center for Naval Analysis, a research and development center for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. However, in June 2010 fewer than half of the legal residents who joined the military filed to become citizens.

As a consequence when many veterans re-entered civilian life, health and mental issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs and alcohol meant that many veterans faced deportation proceedings following their criminal convictions.

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In 1996, Congress enacted a series of changes to immigration law, as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, expanding the list of crimes that could make a legal immigrant subject to deportation.

Crimes categorized at misdemeanors under state law, including minor drug offenses, became aggravated felonies under immigration law, making non-citizens deportable.

Hector Barajas Varela appeared during the announcement on Skype, speaking from the Deported Veterans Support House, an organization based in Tijuana, Mexico, that helps veterans who have been recently deported. A former member of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne, Barajas was the founder of the organization and appeared in his dress uniform to say that hundreds of men and women have been deported to at least 34 countries.

This includes men who were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and those who volunteered to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

"There's no honor in deporting veterans," he said. "Support our troops shouldn't just be a sticker, but something that should bring everybody on board," said Barajas.

The bill will requires Homeland Security officials to "identify cases" were service members may be deportable, and will require immigration officials to inquire about military service and consider that in deportation decisions.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the deportation process for veterans was deliberate.

"Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel," said Virginia Kice, a ICE spokeswoman. "ICE specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised."

Grijalva's announcement comes on the heels of a report by the ACLU released on July 6, which accused federal officials of losing or failing to file naturalization applications for dozen of veterans who were later deported.

The report titled "Discharged, Then Discarded" reviewed 84 cases involving veterans, and said that in many cases, federal officials failed to provide resources and assistance to help people apply for citizenship as part of their military service.

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The ACLU called on officials to allow judges to consider military service as factor to stop deportation proceedings, halt deportation proceedings that involve active-duty personnel or honorably discharged veterans, and provide lawyers to veterans facing deportation.

"This legislation fixes an injustice inflicted on our veterans, it gives them a pathway home. Many believe that when they take their oath, they believe that they are becoming citizens of the United States," said U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas. "We double punish them, we not only incarcerate them, we deport them. That's not fair."

"Dozens who are facing deportation now, they will be deported unless we have some change in our law," Pasquarella said.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva at a March rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.