- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Just about everyone agrees that the U.S. owes an immense debt of gratitude to its veterans.

An increasing number of members of Congress says that debt should include forgiveness even for violent crimes such as domestic violence, and public safety risks like drunken-driving, when the alternative is deportation.

House Democrats convened a hearing Tuesday to highlight the growing support for forgiveness, even as lawmakers said the administration has gone the other direction, making it even tougher than it used to be for immigrants who serve in the military to gain citizenship.

“We can all agree that individuals who are rightfully convicted of a crime should serve any reasonable sentence imposed,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “But once that sentence has been served, we should not simply turn our backs on those who sacrificed so much in service to our country.”

Legal immigrants are allowed to serve in the military and, if they serve in good standing, they are fast-tracked for citizenship — if they apply.

Many don’t take that step, however. And if they later run into serious criminal troubles, they can be subject to deportation, just like any other legal immigrant who runs afoul of the law.

Hector Barajas-Varela, an Army veteran who was twice deported but has since won citizenship — after getting a pardon for his crimes by former California Gov. Jerry Brown — told the Judiciary Committee the military needs to do more to ease the path to citizenship.

“Being a veteran does not mean that you get a free pass and never have to pay the consequences for your actions. At the same time, it does not make sense to me to deport our veterans after they have completed their sentence and paid for their actions,” he said.

He and other activists said deportation amounts to a “double punishment” that citizens don’t face.

The issue of veteran deportations has been driven into the news by several high-profile cases.

Miguel Perez, an Army veteran deported in 2018 after a drug-trafficking conviction, won citizenship earlier this month after a pardon by the governor of Illinois wiped clean his criminal record.

And last week Homeland Security deported a Marine veteran to El Salvador, sending him back to a country he left at age 3. Jose Segovia-Benitez had amassed a serious criminal record, including serving time for drug and domestic-violence convictions.

In each case the veterans say they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from their service time, which they said should have been taken into account in mitigating their criminal past.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has procedures for veterans, including a 2004 memo requiring supervisor approval before they are deported.

A Government Accountability Office report earlier this year said ICE regularly breaks those rules, and the agency doesn’t even have the ability to track when veterans have been deported.

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve Command, said he’s sympathetic to the veterans and said ICE needs to redouble its efforts to follow its policies.

“Although we should not shield service members or veterans from the necessary and lawful consequences of their actions, agencies handling removal cases should be particularly sensitive to a veteran’s honorable service,” he said.

He and Mr. Nadler have found common ground on another part of immigration law and military matters. They are sponsoring a bill to streamline the law that pertains to non-citizen children of U.S. citizens who are stationed abroad for either the military or federal government.

Under a quirk of current law, they may not always have accumulated enough time in the U.S. for those children to automatically become citizens. Instead, the families must go through a more convoluted and expensive process than other Americans.

The new bill advanced by Mr. Nadler and Mr. Collins would give the military and government families the same process as others.

Meanwhile a group of Democrats has written a bill that would not only stop veterans from being deported, but would create a pathway for those previously ousted to be readmitted.

“Anyone who wore the uniform of our armed forces and served time for any wrongdoing deserves a place in our country instead of facing the horrors and trauma of deportation and separation from the ones they love,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat.

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