These former soldiers live in a world of ironies. They are banished from the United States as a result of their crimes and infractions, sometimes related to PTSD, sometimes to outright cons and deceptions by recruiters. Many wrestle with drugs and addiction. They readily acknowledge they are not saints. But their problems could have been handled with treatment and therapy at real VA hospitals if they’d been U.S. citizens. And on the day they die, they are eligible for burial in the U.S. with full military honors. They were honorably discharged, after all.
Barajas says, “We’re only good enough to be Americans when we’re dead.”
Although these banished veterans have been rendered officially invisible, they have transformed themselves into unlikely media stars. Televisa interviews them. Activists seek them out. Photographers pose them with flags. A steady stream of reporters and now filmmakers flows out to the beach to study them and post their story. The soldiers spend a lot of time trying to explain. Aggravated-felony charges got many of them tossed out of the country and are at the heart of their struggle; the key word that turns them into pariahs is felony.
When Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, the American immigration system received a major face-lift. The 200-page bill effectively overhauled existing law. It became a lot easier to be deported.
Not only did the Border Patrol gain more than 10,000 new employees, but funding for Immigration and Naturalization Service investigations increased to unprecedented levels. They needed something to investigate, and these new investigations needed new metrics to put check marks in the proper columns. Hence, stricter penalties for infractions were imposed. To keep the conviction flow healthy, the definition of what constituted an infraction broadened. For example, the act created a 10-year banishment for any “illegal” immigrant caught living in the U.S. for more than a year. And there came a new definition of the term aggravated felony. The better to catch you with, homeboy.
Certain misdemeanors became felonies overnight. Shoplifting while Mexican became a felony. Driving under the influence was now a potential felony. And felonies were deportable offenses. But the genius of it, the draconian stratagem of the deporters, was to make these hardcore penalties retroactive. So soldiers who had already served time for their infractions—even decades earlier—were immediately subject to deportation. And the system revved up its Hoover and started vacuuming them out of their houses. Immigration detainees, according to the system, have no right to counsel.
At the same time, immigration judges were stripped of the one avenue for mercy left open to them: Their judicial discretion was denied.
Green cards didn’t matter, time served didn’t matter, legal counsel didn’t matter. An aggravated felony conviction—even after the fact—meant permanent mandatory banishment. President Barack Obama and his administration would not comment.
Obama has deported more people than any other president in American history. His administration—until its recent embrace of border reform and “pathway to citizenship” (you can hear the rustling sound of a vast Latino voting bloc coming of age beyond the White House fence)—maintained strict quotas for the Department of Homeland Security, keeping the Tea Party happy. Obama’s target has been 400,000 humans a year.
Since 2008 the U.S. has deported almost 2 million people. Last year it set an all-time record: 409,849 humans through the goal posts. Fifty-five percent of them had been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies. That would leave more than 180,000 who are not—even retroactively—guilty of such infractions.
Interestingly, no government agency adrift in that vast trinomial soup of enforcement claims to know how many U.S. veterans are among these numbers.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not currently track how many individuals removed from the United States are military veterans,” says spokesperson Lori Haley.
Hold up now: The Center for Naval Analyses states that 70,000 immigrants enlisted between 1998 and 2008. The Department of Homeland Security posted numbers on its website: 83,532 immigrants naturalized through military service in the past decade—and hundreds of lucky bastards won citizenship posthumously. It’s hard to believe no bean counter knows how many of these soldiers were kicked out of the country. President George W. Bush signed 2004’s National Defense Authorization Act, which made it possible for people to become American citizens on soil outside the United States. That means you could become a U.S. citizen in the middle of a battle—say, in Baghdad, where 161 immigrant soldiers were naturalized on a single day in 2007.
The head spins. Apparently Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is feeling a bit dizzy herself: Writing of citizenship services held for 24 enlistees in 2010, she said “they come to America because of their commitment to our ideals and their belief in the American dream. Many of them risk their lives for their country even before they officially become citizens.”
But before the moment they became citizens, they might have committed a misdemeanor that magically became a felony, which means they can be thrown out with their medals.
Immigration officials claim military service is taken into consideration during deportation proceedings, as mandated by a highly publicized June 2011 document known as the Morton Memo. In it, ICE director John Morton outlined factors for considering mercy in deportation cases.
One factor, wrote Morton, is “whether the person, or the person’s immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military, reserves or National Guard, with particular consideration given to those who served in combat.” It gets better: “certain classes of individuals” deserve “particular care.” Who dat? “Veterans of the U.S. armed forces.”
Recap: We know how many of them exist, but we don’t know how many of them exist. We do, however, know what each of these unknown soldiers did and when they did it and have prosecuted them individually, though we again do not know who they are. We honor their military service to this country and offer them full honors in a U.S. military cemetery upon their deaths, though we deported them for being an unwanted burden to this country. And maybe they could become citizens right there in Tijuana if the U.S. invaded.
No wonder Big Pac-Man feels confused.