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Deported: The Iraq War veterans denied the right to live in the US
Photos of deported veterans at the offices of Robert Vivar, in Tijuana, Mexico, February, 22 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Manuel Ocano.
What’s the context?
Immigrant veterans who fought for the United States are still struggling to secure US citizenship 20 years since the war began
- Foreign-born Iraq War veterans promised U.S. citizenship
- Hundreds deported despite Bush-era naturalization order
- Biden administration helps more than 65 veterans return
TIJUANA, Mexico - Jose Roberto Segovia Benitez knew at a young age he wanted to enlist in the United States Marine Corps and was told, like many foreign-born recruits, that his service would put him on a fast track to U.S. citizenship.
He served in Afghanistan, and then Iraq in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion - suffering a traumatic brain injury from a blast caused by an improvised explosive device (IED) - and was honorably discharged in 2004.
But Segovia Benitez fell on hard times when he returned to the United States, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction, eventually spending eight years behind bars for offenses including assault.
Still without citizenship, his criminal record led him to be deported in 2019 to El Salvador - essentially a foreign country to the 42-year-old, who had lived in the U.S. since he was a young child.
Currently back in the U.S. on a short-term humanitarian visa, he said he was terrified of being sent back to the Central American country - something he expects to happen in the coming months.
"I'd rather kill myself than go back to El Salvador," he said by phone from Long Beach, California, where he is undergoing treatment for addiction. "I'm scared to go back."
His case echoes those of hundreds of veterans, according to advocates, who fought for the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere on the understanding their service would help them gain citizenship but instead found themselves being deported to their birth countries.
Advocates say many fell into crime due to PTSD and other issues linked to their time in the military, and struggled to readapt to civilian life with insufficient support from government agencies.
Some veterans have since been granted citizenship, while others have given up trying to come back.
Segovia Benitez is among dozens who are back in the country - some temporarily - after the Biden administration launched a program in 2021 to benefit deportees.
But despite such initiatives and noted progress on the issue, advocates and former military personnel told Context the U.S. government continues to fail many foreign-born post-9/11 veterans 20 years since the start of the Iraq War.
"This is a humanitarian issue," said Jeffrey Brown, a veteran of the war that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"I'm here hunting down Saddam ... I mean, I wouldn't imagine I'd have immigration issues," said Brown, who was deported in 2012 to Jamaica, where he remains today.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the department was "profoundly grateful" for veterans' sacrifice and would continue to help them access the benefits to which they are entitled.
'Served in uniform'
Lawful permanent residents in the United States must generally live in the country for five years before applying to become a citizen, but the process is much quicker for foreign-born military personnel.
They can apply for naturalization in as little as a year - and potentially less if they were on active duty during the "war on terror" declared by former President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Bush issued an executive order in July 2002 intended to streamline the naturalization process for non-citizens who serve during a designated "period of hostility", such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But advocates say the order was not properly enforced - leading many veterans of both conflicts to be deported on a variety of grounds - even for minor infractions in some cases.
Many point to a 1996 law that expanded the categories of crimes for which undocumented immigrants can be deported to include minor offenses such as shoplifting and drug possession as a key factor in recent veterans' cases.
"Prior to 1996, judges had the ability to look at your record books and to consider your service," said James Smith, founder of Black Deported Veterans of America, an advocacy group.
"(The law) took away their ability to weigh the scales of justice."
Applicants must also demonstrate "good moral character" - complicating naturalization efforts of those who have encountered the U.S. criminal justice system.
It took 14 years - and a spell as a deportee in Kenya - for former army logistics specialist David Bariu to finally be granted U.S. citizenship in November 2022.
"You think so much on what you can do, what you can achieve. And why it took so long for you to get this. Fourteen years. I would have done so much," said Bariu, who was deported in 2008 due to issues with a student visa and had no criminal convictions.
The government does not do a good job of tracking the number of veterans who have been deported, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which estimated that between 2013 and 2018, about 250 veterans were placed in removal proceedings.
Advocates say the numbers are far higher. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs did not provide a number when asked how many veterans have been deported since 2003.
U.S. Representative Mark Takano of California has spearheaded legislation passed by the House in December that seeks to gain a more accurate count and streamline the naturalization process for non-citizen military members.
Takano acknowledged that deportation frequently occurs after some encounter with the justice system - whether over a bar fight, public intoxication, or something more serious.
"These veterans have done something to get in trouble with the law, but the question is of proportional consequences," Takano, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said in a video interview.
"This permanent ban and banishment from (the) country you served in uniform - does that seem proportional?"
For veterans who have been deported, the Mexican city of Tijuana – just across the border from San Diego, California – has become a well-trodden landing spot both for Mexican-born ex-servicemembers and others looking for assistance.
Edwin Salgado was brought by his parents to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of three and had no memories of his birth country.
He served in the U.S. Marines during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and built a career for himself in California as a graphic designer after leaving the military.
But in 2016 he was deported from the United States after serving a year in prison on drugs and weapons charges and dropped off in Tijuana with only a backpack and two sets of clothes.
"It was crazy," he said as he sat in his apartment in Tijuana. "In my mind, I was a citizen."
He was dropped off at El Chaparral, a pedestrian gate linking the U.S. and Mexico where U.S. immigration authorities routinely drop deportees, including veterans.
Arriving in Mexico with only $300 in his pocket, he bought and sold used electronics scrounged from second-hand markets to make ends meet.
Robert Vivar, who heads the Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center, has an office just a stone's throw from El Chaparral. Recently deported veterans often wander in, looking for help, he said.
"They're like a fish out of water," said Vivar, standing in front of the metal gate. "Some don't even speak Spanish, they've never been here before."
Across town, veterans also gather at a makeshift guesthouse known as The Bunker, where another previously deported veteran, Hector Barajas, has let fellow comrades stay in past years.
Barajas, who became a U.S. citizen in 2018, said large numbers of deported veterans were returning to the U.S. under the program launched by the Biden administration in mid-2021.
"I've never seen this many veterans come home," said Barajas, who now works to support veterans on both sides of the border.
Called the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI), the government program has allowed more than 65 veterans back to the United States so far - even if only temporarily through mechanisms such as humanitarian parole.
In 2022, more than 10,600 service members were naturalized, continuing the federal government's long-running work on the issue. Since 2002, U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has naturalized more than 158,000 members of the U.S. military.
Many deportees face an uncertain future and personal challenges even if they do make it back.
Segovia Benitez said he had contemplated suicide at his lowest moments, but was determined to remain hopeful - not least for the sake of his family in the United States.
He now has a four-year-old granddaughter - his son was born in 2003 when he was serving in Iraq - and has other relatives in the country too.
"I have something to come back here for. If I was by myself and didn't give a shit about nothing, I probably would stay over there," he said.
"I can't give up. I got people to live for."
(Reporting by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro; Editing by Helen Popper.)
Part of:The Iraq war: 20 year anniversary
Updated: March 16, 2023
- War and conflict
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