- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2022

ICE deported 28 military veterans in the past three years, according to agency data provided to The Washington Times that suggests it’s not the epidemic that some of the agency’s critics have claimed.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it deported eight veterans in fiscal 2022, 11 the year before and nine in 2020.

That works out to a tiny fraction of total removals — less than 1 in every 10,000 deportations.

Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration judge, said veteran deportations hardly happen. For one thing, illegal immigrants are generally barred from the military, so those serving have some legal status. They would have to amass a significant criminal record to be ousted as immigrants, he said.

For another, the government doesn’t like to deport veterans.

“The numbers are low, but it’s not surprising it’s low because there are safeguards built into the system to make sure that military service is considered before enforcement action occurs,” said Mr. Arthur, a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

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When a veteran is deported, it draws outsized attention.

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee took aim at the issue this year by demanding a full study on the numbers involved, who is deported and why.

Led by the committee, the House this month passed the Veteran Service Recognition Act, which would give veterans facing deportation a chance to apply for enhanced status while awaiting removal. The bill would also create an opportunity for some previously deported veterans to apply to return.

The bill passed in the House on a near party-line vote, 220-208. Just three Republicans sided with Democrats to approve the legislation. The Senate has not taken any action on the bill, and it will die when the next Congress convenes next week.

Supporters of the bill said those who fought for the U.S. deserved more consideration — particularly when veterans blamed their crimes on PTSD or other struggles while adapting to life after military service.

“These men and women are heroes, and how did we thank them for their service after they fought for our country around the world? We deported them. That is despicable and goes against every principle this country stands for,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, Texas Democrat, said during the debate this month.

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Some lawmakers cast doubt on the Homeland Security Department’s numbers, as did Hector Barajas-Varela, who was deported as a veteran but won the right to return and is back in the U.S.

He said the total must be much higher than ICE is reporting.

“One of the things that happens is you go through immigration, they don’t even ask if you’re a veteran, they don’t even check,” he said. “Thousands of people are in detention. Are they checking everybody? I think it’s just people that come up on their radar.”

Mr. Barajas founded the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, to assist veterans who had been removed across the southern border. He has testified to Congress that the number of veterans ousted or facing deportation could be in the thousands.

A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office also called into question ICE’s count. It said the agency “does not have reasonable assurance” that it is flagging all cases.

GAO investigators said that also meant the agency might be deporting veterans without following its own policies for giving those cases extra scrutiny.

The issue is hot enough that Congress, in last year’s spending bill, required ICE to begin regular reporting about deported veterans.

The data sent to Capitol Hill is different from what the agency provided to The Times. Congress asks to see the number of honorably discharged veterans, not the total of all veterans removed. ICE reports to Congress the general criminal classifications.

ICE told lawmakers that it ousted three veterans in 2019 who had been honorably discharged.

One had burglary charges, one had a weapons offense and one had what ICE labeled “general crimes,” which the agency said could range from public disorder to property crimes to stalking or assault.

Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson issued guidelines in May officially codifying the long-standing hurdles to deporting or otherwise enforcing immigration laws against veterans and active-duty troops.

“ICE officers are instructed to inquire about military service when processing noncitizens for removal proceedings, and protections are in place to ensure that service in the U.S. Armed Forces is taken into consideration,” the agency told The Times.

The agency did not say how many of the eight veterans were removed after Mr. Johnson issued the guidance.

Under orders from President Biden, the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments set up an operation to try to bring back some of the veteran deportees.

Mr. Barajas said hundreds have applied for the program.

Some have been allowed back into the country to pursue their cases under Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ power of “parole.” Mr. Mayorkas is using the tool to welcome Afghan evacuees, Ukrainians fleeing war and perhaps hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants at the border.

For those who return, Mr. Barajas said, reintegration can be tough. People who have spent the past decade of their life outside the U.S. after being ejected can struggle to find their place socially or economically when they return.

Just affording a place to stay can be a challenge. Mr. Barajas said he paid $1,000 monthly rent in Tijuana, which was steep, but his rent doubled for less space in California.

U.S. veterans groups try to help.

Mr. Barajas enlisted in the Army in 1995 and could have applied for citizenship, but he said he mistakenly thought his military service automatically made him an American, so he didn’t apply.

That left him vulnerable when he was convicted of shooting into an occupied vehicle and was deported by the Bush administration. He sneaked back into the U.S. and was deported again in 2010 after being snared at a traffic stop.

California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Mr. Barajas for his initial conviction in 2017, clearing the path for him to obtain U.S. citizenship and return in 2018.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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