WASHINGTON — A pair of House lawmakers has reintroduced legislation that would ease the path to citizenship for immigrants who served in the Armed Forces but were later deported because of criminal activity.
The “Repatriate Our Patriots Act” would also block federal officials from forcing those veteran immigrants out of the country, ensuring that they receive legal permanent residency after serving their criminal sentences.
“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,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It is inexcusable that service members who risked it all to protect us would be put through the deportation process.”
Young and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, introduced the measure last session, but it made little progress toward passage. With Democrats now in control of the House, they’re more hopeful about possibility of momentum in that chamber, but the measure still faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The move comes amid a polarizing national debate over immigration that has already prompted a month-long partial government shutdown and accusations from the White House that critics are endangering national security by not doing enough to limit migrants from entering the United States.
But the two lawmakers behind the bill argue that immigrants who served honorably in the military — but committed crimes after leaving the ranks — deserve a chance to stay in this country after serving their time in prison.
They note that combat injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury can lead to substance abuse, and even minor drug offenses can result in deportation for an immigrant going through the naturalization process.
The proposal would exclude veterans convicted of violent crimes such as murder, rape, child abuse and terrorism. And it would not apply to immigrants who face serious legal trouble while still serving in the military.
For veteran immigrants still going through the process of becoming American citizens, the legislation would require the Attorney General to recognize them as legal permanent residents and block any potential deportation order.
For veterans already deported, it would require the Department of Homeland Security to create a new program allowing them to return to the United States as lawfully admitted permanent residents, with a chance at full citizenship.
In the last 18 years, U.S. immigration services have helped nearly 130,000 immigrants who joined the military gain American citizenship, thanks to expedited rules adopted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
But veterans who served before that time or who failed to complete paperwork while in the military don’t enjoy the same legal protections as them. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates more than 200 U.S. military veterans have been deported in recent years, with the number steadily increasing amid the current administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
The legislation would require the Department of Homeland Security to keep comprehensive records of veterans who are deported. It also guarantees veterans the military and veterans benefits for which they are eligible. Currently, those payouts and health care coverage are stopped when a veteran is deported.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.