Last July, inside a crowded cocktail tent, Navy Petty Officer First Class Justin Sullivan stood under a stage light in his dress whites. Politicians and defense leaders pushed through the crowd to shake his hand.

By his side was his wife, Loretto Dalmazzo Sullivan. She smiled despite the heat, their baby strapped to her chest.

Justin Sullivan, the Navy Times’ 2017 Sailor of the Year, was being honored for his service as a radio operator during two combat tours in Afghanistan and hundreds of hours of volunteer work at home.

Loretto kept one eye on their toddler daughter while their infant son pulled on her long dark hair. She wanted to take the opportunity to say something about those Afghanistan deployments, but she didn’t. This was Justin’s moment.

Now, however, “we are at a point where people need to hear,” Loretto, 32, told Military Times Thursday.

While Justin, 28, was deployed in 2012 and 2013, Loretto lived under intense stress, fearing their family would be split apart by immigration authorities. She is undocumented.

“It’s this constant fear that someone is going to show up at your door and take you away,” she said in a phone interview from Florida, where the family is currently based.

The family started her immigration paperwork after Justin and Loretto married, but Loretto was denied because she had previously claimed to be a U.S. citizen on a restaurant job application.

Instead, as Justin was set to deploy again, U.S. immigration officials sent Loretto a letter urging her to voluntarily depart the country.

While he was away, Justin would worry and press Loretto. Don’t speed. Make sure the blinker lights and headlights are working on the car.

“One blinker light out on her car could be her ticket out,” he said.

“Deploying in Afghanistan has its own stressors,” he said. “Every morning going to work, it’s just another thing that’s on my mind. ‘Is today the day they are coming?’ ”

In 2014, Loretto qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, protection. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Ecuador as a 14-year-old in 1999 and filed paperwork with customs and immigration to become legal residents. The paperwork took seven years. By the time her parents were granted permanent residency, Loretto was 21, and could no longer gain residency through her parents. She was on her own.

So Loretto put in her own paperwork, and was told the wait time could be as long as another 10 years. She also needed work. With her family now in the U.S. as permanent residents she did not feel like going back alone was an option. which is why she checked the box on the restaurant application.

“My whole life is here,” Loretto said. “This is my home. My parents are here. My parents are the ones who brought me here. They are U.S. citizens now.”

Loretto has legal status here as long as the DACA program, which is under threat of being cancelled, is continued.

She is one of a dozen military spouses, active-duty service members, veterans or their attorneys who have spoken to Military Times since the news organization reported the story of the looming deportation of the wife of a 7th Special Forces Group veteran, Army Sgt. 1st Class Bob Crawford.

The story, and DHS’s decision to drop deportation proceedings after the story published, touched a nerve. Now, more military families are looking for answers.

“We are kind of hopeless,” said another active-duty sailor, a California-based 35-year-old chief petty officer who has served on the cruiser Lake Champlain, destroyer Chafee and now-decommissioned attack submarine Albuquerque.

He asked not to be identified and said he is contemplating moving his family to Mexico because his wife faces deportation. Like the others who spoke to Military Times, his wife’s vulnerability “is always on your mind when you get deployed.”

Multiple families affected

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already said that some active-duty and National Guard members, reservists and honorably discharged veterans are “protected” from deportation as the administration of President Donald Trump has taken a harder line on immigration.

The families want to know: What about the spouses and kids?

“Who knows how many of us are out there, both inside and outside the U.S.,” said a retired Air Force C-141 pilot who served as an instructor pilot in Iraq in 2009 and 2010.

He and his wife and their two toddler-age daughters now live full-time in the Middle East because his wife, who is Mexican and entered the country illegally, was instructed by DHS to voluntarily leave.

“I continue to this day as a DoD contract pilot, training international pilots in the Middle East,” the 20-year Air Force veteran said via email. “Our hopes, like many other veterans who are outside the U.S. for the same reason, is that we can come home and bring our family home one day.”

Right now, though, it doesn’t look good, he said.

“We’re considering Canada, where she was recently granted a visa when I finish my tour here in the Middle East,” he said. “We’re just tired of all the denials and going through the process and spending money on a lost cause, it seems.”

Each case is different and complex; the affected spouses crossed illegally into the U.S. for various reasons, often to escape violence or hardship. They face deportation for different reasons, too. Some missed a hearing, some falsely said they were U.S. citizens to cross into the U.S. or to obtain work.

At some point, they met their significant others and became the backbone of the military families so often lauded by the service chiefs, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford, Mattis, and even President Trump.

“I want every military family in this country to know that our administration is at your service. We stand with you 100 percent. We will protect those who protect us. And we will never, ever let you down,” Trump said in February 2017 to troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

Vice President Mike Pence, while still in Congress as a representative from Indiana, issued his own support for undocumented military spouses in 2010.

He co-authored a letter with colleagues urging DHS to use all means at its disposal to help the families obtain legal status, including a program called Parole in Place, or PIP, which would allow spouses who crossed illegally to stay.

‘They are not criminals’

But the PIP has been effectively frozen, the military families and their attorneys said, since Trump’s January 2017 executive order directing immigration authorities “to employ all lawful means to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.”

Even though the order specified going after immigrants who have committed crimes since coming to the country, it’s had a blanket impact on the military community’s undocumented dependents, too.

“The concerns I have for [my clients] are the concerns I have for so many,” said attorney David Funke, who is representing former Army Spc. Charles Shreve, 40, who joined the military in 2009 and deployed to Afghanistan with the 307th Expeditionary Signal Battalion in 2010. Shreve’s wife, 37-year-old Claudia, left the U.S. in 2017 after being given the option to depart voluntarily, or be deported.

“They support themselves, they have family, they are not criminals, but all that goes out the window” under the tighter enforcement, Funke said. Besides the Shreves, he currently has two other military families he is representing in deportation cases.

There are at least three bills under consideration in Congress that could help military spouses, dependents and even veterans themselves who have been deported or face a future deportation.

The first is H.R. 1036, the “American Families United Act,” sponsored by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, which would enable immigration enforcement on a case-by-case basis to allow military spouses, dependents and other categories of immigrants to remain in the U.S.

The second is “Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018,” sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, which would ease some of the immigration restrictions for international adoptees.

The third is H.R. 3429, “Repatriate Our Patriots Act,” sponsored by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and O’Rourke. That bill would allow certain honorably discharged veterans who have been deported to come home.

Neither House bill has been granted a committee hearing in Congress, and the Senate bill was just reintroduced this week after it did not gain traction last session. Instead, individual congressional offices are lobbying for individual families in jeopardy to see if there’s a chance for relief.

After Military Times wrote about the case of Alejandra Juarez, the wife of a Marine veteran in Florida who is set to be deported in April, the office of Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., reached out to DHS on her behalf. That case is still pending.

“These are loved ones of our service members, and they deserve some kind of special attention,” Gonzalez said. “Anything that has to do with a veteran should be looked at with special eyes.”

There’s not a good count of how many military families are affected by the tougher immigration enforcement. Gonzalez, however, said he’s heard from deported veterans in 38 different countries.

“I know we are not the only ones who have been through this, and there will continue to be more,” Shreve said. “I just pray our leadership will find a better way for all of us and our families.”

In the days since the story broke about former Army Sgt. 1st Class Bob Crawford, readers have questioned why service members would choose to marry someone who was undocumented. Several of the service members and veterans had the same response.

“You can’t help who you fall in love with,” Justin Sullivan said.

Loretto “was the whole reason I got Navy Times’ Sailor of the Year. She’s the one who nominated me. She took all my evals and wrote it up for me. She’s always been my rock.”

“She’s the person I come home to. Without that, I’d be lost.”

Shreve’s wife, Claudia, 37, was given an option; leave voluntarily or be deported.

“We ended up doing voluntary departure,” Shreve said. “She had a deport order on her.”

In March 2017, the couple was sent a letter to show up at the Louisville, Kentucky, immigration office to which they had reported regularly. But this time, the family got a “heads up,” he said. “We weren’t going to get another year in probation.”

Claudia is now in Mexico; Charles Shreve drove most of the family’s belongings there in January. Charles is staying in the U.S. through June with their two older kids so they can finish the school year. Then everyone will relocate to Chiapas, Mexico, their new home.

“We see this two ways,” Shreve said. “One, it’s unfortunate our family has to go through this. The situation did not end the way we wanted it to. But we look at it as a positive adventure for our children. They get to be multicultural.”

Fighting to stay together

Deportation doesn’t just affect military spouses. It involves their children, too.

“My greatest mistake in life is I didn’t know that [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] had their own age policy,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Patrick Schreiber.

It was 2013. The Schreibers had taken in their niece as their own child. Patrick Schreiber was about to deploy to Afghanistan for a year as director of military intelligence for the 4th Infantry Division at RC-South.

So they decided to wait on formal adoption until he got home.

When he returned, the courts approved the adoption. The state of Kansas issued a birth certificate naming Schieber and his wife, Soo Jin, as the legal parents of Hyebin, who had just turned 17.

The military issued her an ID card and put her in DEERS. But the Department of Homeland Security issued Hyebin a rejection.

“They said there was no path to citizenship,” Schreiber said.

In immigration policy, age 16 is the cutoff. It didn’t matter that he was military; it continues not to matter that Hyebin, now 20, is a junior excelling in chemical engineering at the University of Kansas.

Schreiber met Soo Jin in South Korea while he was serving as a tank company executive officer and other positions with 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment in the late 1990s.

Soo Jin was her niece’s confidant and main support. As Hyebin’s home situation worsened, she asked to come live with them and study in the U.S. Then they legally adopted her. Hyebin’s forced departure “would tear the family apart,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber retired from the military in 2015 and continues to work for DoD as a contractor.

For now, Hyebin is in the U.S. on a student visa. Once she graduates, she will have to leave, Schreiber said.

“I spent 27 years in the Army, always putting the Army ahead” of family, he said.

He jumped with the 82nd Airborne Division into Panama during Operation Just Cause, served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and then again from 2007 to 2008, then was sent to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2014.

If Hyebin is sent back to South Korea, it’s likely Schreiber and his wife will leave the U.S. to be with their daughter.

Former Army Spc. Brian Holovach, 53, first served from 1982 to 1986 with the 3rd Armored Division in Germany. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he decided to serve again, re-enlisting in 2002 with the Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division.

In 2004, the 42nd was activated. Holovach, a network systems operator, spent 11 months deployed and served in a signal unit in Tikrit, Iraq.

“But mostly I was a commander’s driver,” Holovach said.

Their base got mortared almost every day, Holovach said. Once he got home, he had a hard time coping.

“Brian, you’ve changed,” said wife, Esmeralda, 56, who he’d married in 2003.

Esmeralda was a petite beauty from Guatemala who’d stepped out of a big, red pickup truck at a Burger King.

“It was love at first sight,” Holovach said.

When he got back, he said, he “was drinking a lot, she didn’t like it. I was on a downward spiral. She lifted me up. I love her. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”

They have tried to get her legal status adjusted for 15 years. Holovach said immigration officials recently informed his lawyer that the paperwork they previously filed cannot be located, and their next hearing is this October. If for some reason the judge is unavailable that day, their case “gets pushed another year,” Holovach said. “That’s the way the immigration court system works.”

In the meantime, his wife’s legal residency is still in jeopardy.

“I love my country. I love my family,” Holovach said. “But this is one thing I’ve promised her. Nothing is going to happen to her. If she ever was, God forbid, brought into ICE, I would camp out at their doorstep with a sleeping bag and a tent. She would not do it alone.”

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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