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The U.S. Has Deported Thousands of Veterans. A New Policy Change Offers New Hope for 'Soldiers Left Behind'

Portrait of Manuel and Valente Valenzuela
Portrait of veteran brothers Manuel (left) and Valente (right) Valenzuela in their uniforms. | Still from the film "American Exile"
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The motto “no soldier left behind” is as old as human warfare; it has also been used as part of the soldiers' creed by the U.S. Marines and other military forces. That phrase is seen on a poster on the wall in one of the scenes of the new documentary “American Exile,” which depicts the life of two brothers: Valente and Manuel Valenzuela, both military veterans from the Vietnam War who faced deportation decades after coming back from the service.

The phrase has become a war cry for a group of veterans many Americans don’t even know exists. Veterans, including those who served in wars going as far back as the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, are being deported because of a law passed in 1996 that was applied retroactively to people who served decades before or who have served since.

The U.S. has deported tens of thousands of military veterans since the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Some estimates point to at least 94,000. A majority of the service members deported were legal residents who committed at least three misdemeanors, making them deportable.

In many cases, they were highly decorated veterans, who came back to the U.S. scarred by PTSD and partially or fully disabled. The law does not allow the government to take any of that into account on the decision, and people have been deported for charges such as disorderly conduct, drunk driving, theft, and several other misdemeanors renamed “aggravated felonies.”

The law, passed in the throes of the anti-immigrant backlash that followed a large influx of immigrants during the 1980s and 1990s, resulted in the deportation of millions of legal residents, including veterans.

“Before that law was passed, the U.S. had never deported a military veteran,” said John Valadez, an award-winning filmmaker who directed and produced “American Exile.” “Foreign nationals have served in the military since the Revolutionary War, they had a special status and we gave them a lot of slack because of their services. Deporting veterans goes contrary to our traditions.”

American Exile
Two brothers who fought in Vietnam are among thousands of veterans who are being deported. | "American Exile."
American Exile

Five U.S. presidents later, immigrant veterans past and present have new hopes: this past July, the Biden administration announced a process to allow deported veterans to return to the U.S. and a commitment, along with the Department of Veteran Affairs, to “support our nation’s noncitizen services members, veterans, and the immediate family members of service members.”

“The Department of Homeland Security recognizes the profound commitment and sacrifice that service members and their families have made to the United States of America,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he announced the policy change. “Together, with our partner the Department of Veterans Affairs, we are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled.”

The announcement was welcomed by many, including attorney Jeannie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights at the ACLU of Southern California, who has worked on this issue over the years.

“When they made the announcement we were elated because it was an important, bold commitment of doing right by immigrant veterans,” said Pasquarella. “Since then, they have been working on figuring out exactly what they meant.”

Pasquarella said that there’s no formal process yet for bringing back deported veterans, but that Homeland Security and the Veterans Affairs have been “working on individual cases, addressing immediate needs, offering vaccines to deported veterans and helping those who have exigent circumstances.”

She added that “a lot of work” has been happening, but that they have yet to figure out the long-term strategy and policy to make sure that the problem doesn’t continue.

As an example of what has been happening since the announcement, last month the Veterans Affairs held an exclusive event for U.S. veterans living in Mexico: a vaccination clinic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The event was meant for the veterans, spouses and their caregivers.

Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs are also working with other partners to identify deported veterans and offer them Veterans Affairs benefits, something they usually lost after deportation. According to internal memos from the administration published after the July announcement, top Homeland Security immigration officials said they would use prosecutorial discretion and other legal authorities to facilitate the return of eligible veterans.

"American Veteran" traces the veteran experience across the arc of American history.
American Veteran Preview

According to Pasquarella, some deported veterans have started to come back. Even before this change in administration, lawyers and organizations were involved in helping individual veterans to clean their records and obtain citizenship. One well-known case was that of Hector Barajas, the founder of Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico. Barajas obtained his citizenship in 2018 and was able to return to the U.S. but is still active on behalf of deported veterans and is urging the administration to hasten the repatriations. He and others have seen more than one veteran return to their families in the U.S. in a casket after being deported and dying without being able to return.

Recently, the Washington Post reported the case of Juana Flores, a military mother who was brought back after two years of being deported, leaving behind 10 children and 18 grandchildren. She is now back in California.

Aside from a clear process to allow for repatriations, which has not been publicly stated so far, naturalization while in service is one thing that could prevent many service members from becoming vulnerable to deportation in the first place, said Pasquarella.

Military service is supposed to qualify these immigrants to obtain citizenship, and that benefit was often used in the past to entice them to join, but a program that provided naturalization assistance during basic training was “essentially killed” during the Trump administration.

“This change has not yet been undone,” added Pasquarella.

For filmmaker John Valadez, who ended his one-hour documentary “American Exile” with the faces of 10 military veterans who died in exile, this situation is “the latest iteration in a national malaise that has to do with the demographic shift” that has happened in the United States in the last few decades.

For Manuel Valenzuela, one of the veteran brothers whose struggle is depicted in the film, the deportation of veterans is “shameful.”

“Anyone who has served in the military has earned the right to citizenship.” he said. His brother Valente, a decorated veteran of the same war, decided to stop dealing with the stress of fighting his deportation, and self-deported to Mexico a few years ago, throwing his medals into the Rio Grande River as he left.

Valente Valenzuela shares his emotional turmoil after receiving his removal notice. | Clip from "American Exile"
Veteran Self-Deports to Mexico to Live in Exile

He has since published a book, “The Enemy Within,” and become a local celebrity in the state of Chihuahua.

But many deported veterans and their families still await the return to the country they fought for valiantly.

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