He served country but couldn’t stay
A little-known cadre of warriors served in the U.S. military as green-card holders — legal residents but not citizens — then committed a crime in civilian life and were permanently expelled from the United States. No one knows how many there are, and few are willing to help them.
The Washington Post
HERMOSILLO, Mexico — Milton Tepeyac, who served eight years as a U.S. Marine, scrapes by on $3 an hour in this northern Mexican city, where he has lived since the U.S. government deported him in April.
His rented room floods when it rains. Scorpions skitter in. To kill them, he had to pay an exterminator $40 — a third of his weekly paycheck.
Once he served in the Kuwaiti desert in a recon battalion, a highly trained grunt monitoring the movements of Saddam Hussein’s military across the border in Iraq. Later he ran a seafood business in Phoenix, drove a BMW and owned a five-bedroom house with a billiards room and a pool.
But then, with his business foundering in the 2008 recession, he was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal that turned out to be a police sting. He was convicted of felony “possession of marijuana for sale” and was sentenced to four years in an Arizona prison. When he completed his time, he was deported from the country where he had lived since he was 3.
“It was a stupid thing to do,” Tepeyac, 37, said of his crime. “I feel like I’m stuck in a perpetual nightmare. I can’t seem to adjust to this life. In the Marines, we have a motto that we never leave a man behind. I feel like I’ve been left behind.”
As a deported veteran, Tepeyac is one of a little-known cadre of warriors who served in the U.S. military as green-card holders — permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens — then committed a crime after returning to civilian life, were convicted and punished, then permanently expelled from the United States.
No one knows how many there are. U.S. officials said they do not keep track, but immigration lawyers and Banished Veterans, a group formed to help the deportees, said that at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, have been deported in recent years.
Some committed felonies; others were deported for drug possession, bar fights, theft or forgery. Veterans who fought for the United States in wars from Korea to Afghanistan have been sent to Mexico, Germany, Jamaica, Portugal, Italy, England and other nations. Most of them came to the United States as children; many have been deported to countries where they know no one and don’t speak the language.
Deported veterans are receiving almost no attention in the Washington debate over immigration reform. Despite their full-throated support for U.S. troops, political leaders are generally unwilling to advocate on behalf of convicted criminals.
“It’s not appropriate”
U.S. immigration law states that noncitizens who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to remain in the country. Deported veterans and their advocates say those who wear the uniform should be treated as U.S. citizens: punished for any crimes they commit, but not deported.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, said deporting veterans “is not fair, and it’s not appropriate for who we are as a people.”
“One thing America has always done is revere its veterans,” he said. “To say to them, ‘You swore to support and defend the Constitution and put your life on the line for the rest of us. But you’re not a citizen. So, too bad. You’re gone.’ I just think that’s not us.”
One of the few politicians who have been willing to raise the issue is U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., an Army veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. He and a Republican colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Fla., introduced legislation this year that would have required the secretary of homeland security to sign off on each deportation proceeding against a veteran.
“If someone is willing to put on the uniform of the United States military, the last thing they should have to worry about is their immigration status and that of their family; we shouldn’t be deporting them,” Thompson said in an interview.
But in June, he said, House leaders declined to consider the proposal, which he called a “slap in the face to our veterans, our service members and our history as a nation of immigrants.”
Veterans are divided on this issue.
“We hold all military veterans in high regard, but if following our nation’s laws is a requirement for any guest to remain in our country, then that’s the law,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the nation’s largest veterans group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “An honorable discharge is not a free pass.”
Craig Shagin, a Pennsylvania lawyer who represents Tepeyac and is a leading national advocate against deporting veterans, calls the issue “a question of loyalty.”
“When Milton was in the Marines, doing dangerous work on behalf of the United States, we treated him as an American,” Shagin said. “Why would that change when he is out of uniform? Because he failed to file a couple of pieces of paper?”
Of all Tepeyac’s mistakes, one he especially regrets is not applying for citizenship when he was eligible. If he had, he would not have been deported.
Under U.S. law, Tepeyac had been entitled to apply for citizenship when he was 18; he had received his green card five years earlier. Also, once he joined the military the next year he could have applied for citizenship immediately, under a policy Bush enacted in 2002.
But he never filled out the paperwork. He said he thought that he automatically became a citizen when he swore his Marine Corps oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“It never really crossed my mind that I could ever be deported,” Tepeyac said.
According to the Pentagon, about 35,000 noncitizens are serving in the U.S. military. Since 2009, about 9,800 military recruits have earned their citizenship during basic training in a program run by the military and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
They are part of more than 89,000 people who have received citizenship through military service since 9/11. That includes 140 who were granted citizenship after being killed in the line of duty.
When Tepeyac finished his prison sentence in April, immigration officials drove him to the Mexican border at Nogales. With nothing but the baby blue prison-issued clothes he was wearing, he was turned over to Mexican officials.
His sister Liz met him there, and bought him dinner, clothes and toiletries. She gave him $500 and the number of a cousin who lived in Hermosillo who had agreed to take him in until he found his own place.
“I know I messed up bad,” he said. “But I did my time, and I gave four years of my life in prison. Why should I be punished again?”
Many deportations of veterans can be traced to changes to immigration laws passed 1994 and 1996.
First, Congress, in an effort to tighten immigration controls, greatly expanded the list of more than 30 categories of offenses for which a person can be deported, adding crimes such as forgery and any theft that carries a sentence of one year or more.
The government calls those offenses “aggravated felonies,” but immigration lawyers say that many of them do not fit the common definitions of “aggravated” or “felony.” Shoplifting is generally a nonviolent misdemeanor, but if a judge imposes a sentence of one year or more — even if that sentence is suspended — a noncitizen shoplifter can be deported.
The definition of “aggravated felony” is “a fraud on the American people,” said Margaret Stock, an Alaska immigration lawyer who is also a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Military Police and taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
The 1996 changes to immigration law were also retroactive, so they included offenses committed “at any time” in a person’s life. In addition, they banned immigration judges from exercising discretion in most deportation cases, essentially taking away their ability to grant mercy.
This resulted in deportations of green-card holders that Congress hadn’t intended, said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which handled immigration enforcement before the Department of Homeland Security was created.
She said the retroactivity clause was “almost unprecedented in our legal system.” And she said taking away a judge’s discretion eliminated any chance for a veteran such as Tepeyac.
“It’s tragic in a case of somebody like this, who is not a hardened criminal,” she said. “Pre-’96, a judge would have been able to grant relief.”
Tepeyac recently found a job, earning about $3 an hour as an English-speaking operator at a call center that provides tech-support for cellphone customers in the United States.
He became emotional when talking about his family in Phoenix. “They come to visit,” he said, “and that’s the closest thing I have to touching home.”