Immigrant? Combat vet? Being both can still result in deportation
Jose Segovia Benitez, who was brought to the United States from El Salvador when he was 3, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 18, eager to serve what he’s always considered to be his country.
He saw combat, in Iraq, and after five years was honorably discharged.
But when he came home, in 2004, Segovia wasn’t the same guy. A brain injury left him depressed and angry. And he exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
This different version of Segovia also took to drinking. He got into trouble with the law and served time for domestic abuse, driving under the influence and other felony convictions.
Though he was a legal permanent resident when he joined the Marines, and he began the naturalization process while on duty, his U.S. citizenship was never finalized. Which is why, when he was leaving prison January of 2018, U.S. combat veteran Segovia was on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a candidate for deportation. He was picked up by ICE agents and taken to the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, where he’s been ever since.
Now, he’s appealing a process that would send him to a country he hasn’t seen since he was a toddler.
The 37-year-old, a graduate of Poly High School in Long Beach, is part of a growing world of immigrants who’ve been deported or face deportation after serving in the U.S. military.
The government doesn’t track how many people are in Segovia’s predicament. Veteran groups and their supporters have documented hundreds of immigrant veterans who have been kicked out of the country, but suspect the actual number to be in the thousands. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 2017 put the number closer to 3,000.
Some deported veterans are staying in Tijuana so they can be close to their families still living north of the border.
Advocates argue the process is demonstrably unfair.
“If you’re a citizen, you make a mistake, you pay for your mistake, and then you go home,” said Robert Vivar, co-director of Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, a Tijuana-based organization rooting for Segovia’s release and the return of all deported veterans.
“If you’re not a citizen, you get punished for the same crime, not only twice, but you get a life sentence.”
Vivar and others argue that U.S. veterans have earned and deserve the right to live in the country they were willing to die for.
“Being deported, taken away from your family, from the neighborhood where you grew up, is quite a trauma,” said Vivar, an immigrant who grew up in Corona and was deported but is not a veteran.
“Even a convicted murderer rapist has an opportunity of parole and being reintegrated into the community,” said Vivar, who works at a call center in Tijuana. “But someone who served, who was willing to give up their lives, has all that taken from them.”
Legislation to bring them back
While Vivar’s group and others are fighting for Segovia’s release, two Congressmen recently reintroduced a bill that would let deported veterans who were honorably discharged return to the United States. The exceptions would be veterans convicted of voluntary manslaughter, murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, terrorism or child abuse.
The “Repatriate our Patriots Act,” (H.R.1078,) would also prohibit the deportation of non-citizen veterans, and it would expedite the naturalization process of those already deported, allowing them to go through the process abroad.
“If you are willing to put your life on the line to defend this great nation and its values, you should be able to become a U.S. citizen,” Congressman Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, said in a news release when he reintroduced the bill in February with a Democratic congressman from Texas, Vicente Gonzalez.
Other legislative attempts to prevent the deportation of American veterans included the “Second Chance for Service Act” from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside). That bill would have amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to ensure that a veteran who has served honorably is not automatically barred from citizenship after committing certain crimes.
“America is a country that believes in second chances, and few deserve a second chance as much these veterans,” Takano said when he introduced that bill in 2017. “Treating people who risked their lives for our freedom so callously violates the respect and gratitude we owe to all who have served. This legislation gives the administration the flexibility it needs to provide our veterans the rights they fought to protect.”
In recent years, several cases have drawn a spotlight to the issue.
In 2017, former Gov. Jerry Brown issued pardons to three immigrant veterans deported to Mexico. They included Hector Barajas, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who was deported in 2010 after he had completed a two-year sentence for shooting a gun at an occupied vehicle. While in Tijuana, Barajas founded Deported Veterans Support House to advocate for their cause. Nearly a year ago, Barajas returned home to Compton, a day after he became a U.S. citizen.
Barajas’ story differs from that of another deported vet: U.S. Army veteran Carlos Jaime Torres.
In 2010, the Vietnam vet – who served four years in battle – was deported following a conviction for marijuana possession in Texas. In late 2018, Torres was allowed to return home – but only for his own funeral. He died while living in a border town in Mexico near his Texas home. He was buried in the United States with full military honors. In 2016, he told the Austin American Statesman that he never felt at home in Mexico, where he worked as a security guard, and kept mementos of his U.S. military service in his small border home.
“He was just proud to be an American, period,” said Torres’ son, Carlos Edward Mosqueda, who served in both the Navy and Army, in part because his father encouraged his children to “serve our country.”
“Even in Mexico, he would say, ‘Yeah, I’m an American,” Mosqueda told The Monitor.
Rep. Gonzalez, who represents a district in south Texas, said his bill is being re-introduced “for Carlos Torres, for the thousands of deported veterans around the world like him, and to prevent this inexcusable practice from happening again.
“We must repatriate our patriots.”
Non-citizens have long served
The U.S. military has a long history of non-citizens serving in its ranks.
During World War 1, for example,18 percent of the military was made up of immigrants, according to a November 2017 report from the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group. “The Army set up special camps to teach English to the Polish, Italian, Hungarian and other troops, and 150,000 of these troops became citizens through their wartime service.”
In 1961, Congress added a requirement: to enroll during peace time, one must be a lawful permanent resident. By 2015, about 40,000 permanent residents who were not U.S. citizens served in the Armed Forces, according to the Immigration Forum report.
About 5,000 lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, apply to the military every year.
A 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union titled “Discharged, then discarded” noted that most of the veterans deported in recent years have been lawful permanent residents. Many of them committed minor offenses while readjusting to civilian life. Nearly all were eligible for citizenship though some, according to the ACLU report, did not apply for citizenship because they believed it would happen automatically with their military service. Others applied, but their cases “were lost in an unwieldy mass of red tape.”
Besides the green card holders, there’s another much smaller group of veterans who face potential deportation – asylum seekers, refugees and certain visa-holders who served in the military to provide specific language, health care backgrounds or cultural skills considered vital to the nation’s interest. This group is part of the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, otherwise known as MAVNI.
More than 10,000 enlisted in MAVNI from 2009 to late 2016, when the program was essentially abolished, according to retired U.S. Army Lt. Coronel Margaret Stock, who spearheaded MAVNI. Under Stock, the program made it possible for newly enlisted immigrants to get access to a sped-up naturalization process while still in basic training.
When the program was put under review – a month after the 2016 presidential electon – many immigrant warriors were left in limbo. Some were abruptly booted out of the military and threatened with deportation.
“It’s unfortunate because they’re having trouble finding qualified recruits” for those specialized positions, said Stock, who now works as immigration attorney in Alaska.
Segovia red tape
For Segovia, the process of becoming a citizen was bungled, according to his Encino attorney, Wayne Spindler.
Segovia’s 2002 application for citizenship – submitted four years before his first conviction – was delayed and mishandled, according to court documents. Segovia re-submitted the paperwork in 2010. Spindler argues that Segovia’s citizenship should be granted retroactively.
Last month, Segovia’s appeal to the immigration board was denied. His attorney has moved to take the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Segovia’s case is complex, but – unlike many deported immigrant veterans – he’s backed by numerous supporters. Some have joined family members making the trek to visit him at the Adelanto detention center in San Bernardino County.
“He served his country. Now what? They’re going to ship him out, like he’s a nobody?” said Pat Alviso, national coordinator for Military Families Speak Out, an organization that advocates for returning troops from the Middle East.
Segovia’s family said they worry about him and whether he’s getting the proper treatment he needs. They blame the military for not treating his war-induced mental health issues more promptly, before he started drinking and got into trouble.
Segovia was a “vibrant and happy” young man who “was all about the Marine Corp and (their motto) Semper Fi,” said his sister, Elizabeth Garcia, 22. “He ran marathons. He was very clean. He was in that mental state of mind of being in the military,” she said.
When he returned to Long Beach, that mindset was different.
“He would wake up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat, and think he was still at war, with a weapon in his hands,” said Segovia’s mother, Marta Garcia.
“I would try to comfort him, and tell him, ‘Son, you’re at home.’”