This is Hector Barajas. He served in the 82nd Airborne. He was honorably discharged in 2001. And then he was deported.
The story became major news in 2016, but it’s been a known problem for a long time: American immigration law demands the deportation of every green card holder convicted of a crime, and military service does not automatically confer citizenship. Soldiers ending their time in uniform are far more likely than average to have trouble with the law. And, until recently, the Department of Defense had no programs in place to counsel non-citizen soldiers about citizenship applications.
I want to be clear here: This is not a Donald Trump problem, though people will tell you it is. It’s not even a problem Trump can solve; it would be illegal for him to take any executive action in this area contrary to the laws passed by Congress. This is a problem that each of the two preceding administrations buried, likely because they believed it to be impracticable for them to tackle head-on.
But more on that in a bit; first, The Bunker.
Also known as the Deported Veterans Support House, The Bunker is a small storefront in a strip mall in Tijuana. Deported veterans gather there for moral support; they also use it as a base for their efforts to return to the country they served, and that they consider their own. They have rather more success helping each other find local employment.
Barajas has managed to arrange a great deal of press attention for his organization. You’ve probably seen his picture and read his story. But a front page and a few minutes on CNN isn’t enough to change the law. And Hector Barajas has lost the ability to generate headlines.
In 2017, shortly after the CNN story hit top viewership, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed pardons for three veterans, retroactively erasing the convictions that had gotten them expelled from the country. Barajas is one of the three. It’s excellent news for him, not so much for his organization; there are still dozens who make use of the storefront support base, and without the media exposure, there’s little likelihood for any systemic change.
The DoD has taken some steps to help prevent this going forward. Initial screening has been tightened — the numbers apparently haven’t suffered much — and counseling programs now exist. More care is taken to notify those approaching the end of their enlistments. However, due to specifics in existing law, Defense lacks the authority to make major systemic changes.
It’s a complex problem, not amenable to simple solutions. (Most aren’t.) There’s good reason for military service to not automatically convey citizenship upon enlistment; all else aside, it limits desertion — one in four fail to complete their term as it is. Being in the military streamlines the application process, but it would be wrong to force citizenship on someone who is unwilling (perhaps they wanted to enlist only long enough to help liberate their home country) so policy has always been to leave it up to the individual soldier’s initiative. Only recently have greater efforts been expended on programs to encourage citizenship applications, and as observed above, that does nothing to help those who have already been deported — like Barajas.
Another objection raised is that this is a problem impacting comparatively few. Of the eight thousand non-citizen enlistees each year, only about a third ever become naturalized citizens, but everyone that qualifies is given the opportunity. And, while there’s no reliable tracking, estimates indicate that only about a hundred veterans per year are deported, each upon conviction for a crime. Undeniably, some crimes committed by veterans are truly heinous.
(It’s a common misperception that merely being accused of a crime can lead directly to deportation; the truth is more complicated. This page, while simplified, explains the most common problems.)
But I would argue that any injustice practiced as policy by the U.S. government ought to be remedied, regardless of how few are impacted unreasonably or how difficult the solution might be. We have a special duty, a debt of honor owed by our citizens to those who risk their lives to protect our freedom. Even those of us who oppose war on principle are not innocent of this debt; the one does not invalidate the other.
Ideally, Congress must solve this via statute. It’s their job. However, it’s difficult in any complex situation to find a single simple solution, and good laws are always simple. In this case, we’re looking at a tiny loophole created by the massive complexity of immigration law, and wholesale comprehensive reform is politically impracticable — necessary, sure, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.
So instead I propose the following:
It is the prerogative of the Secretary of Defense to reactivate any former service member. By statute, no justification is required. I propose that a special service battalion be created for the especial purpose of requiring the presence in-country of any deported veteran who meets certain qualifications: honorable discharge, reasonable limits on convictions subject to individual review, and a willingness to permanently return to the United States. Minimal duty will be required of these persons, primarily location accountability and a willingness to participate in a streamlined naturalization process.
Congress need only establish a case-by-case review process in the Homeland Security Agency, a process which already exists, and to grant Defense the authority to issue requests for such that cannot unreasonably be refused.
The reason that deporting veterans is unjust is simple: To do so can ruin the life of a person who is convicted of a minor crime — even so minor as failing to fill out a change of address form. Deportation thus becomes a cruel and unusual punishment, which is rightly unconstitutional. This situation typifies the purpose behind the doctrine of judicial discretion: It’s necessary that a living thinking person review a criminal judgment and determine whether the law is functioning reasonably.
And so, to address this, all we need to do is add the person back into the equation — to provide a judge with the ability to review each case and make a personal determination.
Sometimes complex problems actually can have simple solutions.
Updates on The Bunker and their mission can be found on their Facebook page.