Senator Fights to End Deportation of Veterans

The Democratic senator from Illinois is pushing for legislation that would end the government’s practice of deporting people who have served honorably in the United States military.

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WASHINGTON — Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois and an Army veteran who lost her legs in the Iraq war, has been pushing hard in Congress in recent weeks to try to end the federal government’s practice of deporting undocumented immigrants who served honorably in the military.

Ms. Duckworth, who was among the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom and who served alongside undocumented immigrants, recently released a report scrutinizing the practice of deporting veterans. She wants her bill to curb the practice included in an immigration package being discussed among a bipartisan group of senators, which itself faces long odds.

The Biden administration on Friday announced plans to provide greater support for deported veterans, including efforts to return those eligible to the United States and provide others with greater access medical care. Ms. Duckworth applauded the move, which she said would “help right some of these wrongs” but added that, “it is still critical Congress change the laws that allowed this to happen in the first place.”

She spoke last week with The New York Times about her efforts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your report, “Immigrant Veterans: Deported by the Same Nation They Sacrificed to Defend,” cited Government Accountability Office data that showed at least 92 veterans were deported from 2013 to 2018, though the number could be much higher, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials frequently did not follow their own policies when deporting veterans, including failing to review military service when initiating deportation proceedings. What stands out to you from your staff’s research?

People don’t even know that we are deporting veterans. I think most Americans assume that when somebody serves, they gain American citizenship. They don’t realize that we are actually deporting people who served honorably.

The other important thing is that there are executive orders, laws and policies on the books to give veterans their citizenship, but the [Department of Defense] and [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] have not been processing the paperwork. We have cases where veterans submitted paperwork with their unit thinking everything was done, and it was not. And they only find out about it when they’re being handed over to ICE.

Your report puts blame on former President Trump’s administration. Doesn’t this issue predate him? Did his administration make changes that exacerbated the problem?

One of the things President Trump did was starting to shut down the immigration stations [at military bases] that made it easier for people to process their citizenship status there. They also stopped honoring private bills. Senators used to be able to do a private bill that named one individual that prevented them from being deported. They stopped honoring those. And they stopped honoring the deal that D.O.D. and [the Department of Homeland Security] had to not deport the family members of servicemen and women who were deployed overseas. They didn’t even know about that until I told them about it.

I asked D.O.D. leadership, ‘Did you know ICE has stopped honoring this agreement?’ They had no idea. During the Trump administration, we had actually had folks who were in Iraq and Afghanistan whose spouse was detained by ICE and deported, and their kids were put into government care. Can you imagine being overseas and finding out your spouse has been picked up by ICE and now your children are being handed over to social services?

How did you get involved in this issue?

I was in command of a Blackhawk Company in Chicago in 2003. My unit was alerted that we were about to be mobilized. I started putting my unit through a premobilization checklist. That’s when I found out that some of my soldiers that I’d known for 15 years were not citizens. I didn’t know that before then.

These were guys I’d served with. I’d flown missions with them. I’d slept in the dirt with them. Under an executive order by President Bush, we were able to push through and get them their citizenship. But that’s when I first realized, ‘I’ve got guys in my unit,’ — these are key people; these are senior crew chiefs; these were the guys who set the standards — and I’m thinking, ‘What would I do without these guys?’ So we hustled and we got them their citizenship.

Then when I became a senator, people started asking me for the private bills to protect their servicemen and women. That’s when I really started digging into this issue.

At a recent hearing, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said he supports naturalization for undocumented service members, but raised concerns that the legislation was written too broadly and could protect people from deportation even if they’ve committed “very serious crimes,” such as robbery, drug trafficking and child molestation. Is that what you’re pushing for?

No, no. This is being mischaracterized. The bill would prohibit the deportation of veterans who are nonviolent offenders. It would establish a visa program where deported veterans may enter the U.S. as a legal permanent resident, so they can become naturalized citizens. It would extend military and veterans benefits to those who are eligible for them. I met a gentleman in Tijuana who was deported because he got a DUI. Now he’s in Tijuana and there’s no [Department of Veterans Affairs] hospital there. He needs VA care, which he has earned, is entitled to, and he can’t access it. My bill would allow them to access it.

I have a second bill that would identify noncitizens who are currently serving or have served. This would address the fact that D.H.S. does not keep track, when people are deported, whether or not they are veterans. We have folks coming before judges who served long and honorably in the military and the judge doesn’t know that and doesn’t know to take it into consideration when deciding whether or not to deport this person.

I’m not excusing veterans who get in trouble with the law. But if they get in trouble with the law and they pay their dues at the end of it, they should still be able, on the basis of their honorable service, to gain citizenship.

What are the chances of your bill being included in an immigration deal? Could it be included in budget reconciliation?

I’ve given it to the negotiators for the immigration deal, because this needs to be a part of it. Senator Alex Padilla [Democrat of California] is carrying this forward as part of his conversations and negotiations. I’ve talked to Senator [Richard J. Durbin, head of the Judiciary Committee, is leading the immigration talks] at length about this.

Some of my bills could actually be executive orders. There’s nothing stopping the Department of Homeland Security from tracking who among those currently serving are not citizens and who among those being detained are veterans. They could do this today and make those notations on their paperwork.

I’m happy to try to get it through reconciliation. I’m happy to try to get it through as part of a deal. We just need to get it done. I’m trying everything.

Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.

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