This year on Veterans Day, a group of veterans gathered at a small, cobbled-together support house in Mexico. They were forced to celebrate abroad, mere steps from our soil, because our government has forbidden them from setting foot in the nation they risked their lives to defend.
Nicknamed “The Bunker,” their building is inconspicuous — differentiated from those around it only by the number of American flags hanging in its windows and the newspaper clippings taped to its glass that tell the stories of the men and women who were kicked out of the nation they served, forced to rely on the Deported Veterans Support House for everything from food to community, shelter to advocacy.
Since it opened in 2014, roughly 400 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who sacrificed for our nation from Da Nang to Fallujah — all veterans that our government has abandoned now that they’ve hung up their uniforms — have received assistance and support from the Bunker that our government should be responsible for.
Right now, about 60 deported veterans who are struggling with wounds — both visible and otherwise — are making use of the Bunker’s services because they are unable to get the VA medical care they need and deserve.
There is an extra screening process to deport veterans who don't have citizenship, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement is ignoring it.
These are Americans all but on paper, many of whom enlisted after then-President George W. Bush signed an executive order fast-tracking citizenship for those willing to serve — but who, because of things like lost paperwork, fell through the cracks, never officially becoming citizens and remaining vulnerable to the whims of a future White House’s deportation policies.
I refuse to let them believe that everyone in government has forsaken them. That’s why I spent this past Veterans Day across the border in Tijuana. I visited that makeshift refuge and honored the sacrifices made by my brothers and sisters in arms who are forced to stay eyes’ distance away from American soil.
While some may see it as remarkable that these veterans have taken it upon themselves to help each other get clothes on their backs and food in their stomachs, I know the reality of it: That’s what veterans do. We take care of our own. But this burden should have never fallen on the backs of those who have already carried the weight of our democracy in their rucksacks. Instead, it’s our government that has the responsibility — the duty — to support those who have answered the call to defend the United States and our Constitution.
That’s why — whether it’s Veterans Day or any other ordinary day — I am going to fight to actually honor their service in ways they deserve, including by working to pass legislation to give legal permanent residents a path to citizenship through military service, prohibit deporting veterans who aren’t violent offenders and allow deported veterans who commit non-violent crimes to temporarily re-enter the U.S. to get medical treatment from VA clinics.
This isn’t “just” a matter of doing right by those who’ve worn the uniform. It’s a matter of national strength and national security, too: Would-be recruits are going to think twice about volunteering to serve if they believe our government will desert them after they get home from war.
According to the latest numbers, 71 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are deemed unfit to serve — a number that’s only expected to climb higher in the years to come. Meanwhile, the Army fell short of its recruiting goal last year for the first time since 2005.
So with fewer and fewer people enlisting as the years go on, we should be celebrating every person who serves. We should be honoring those immigrants who can’t even vote yet, but who love this country so much they’re willing to die for it. But instead, we’re kicking them out — letting a toxic mix of bigotry and partisanship keep those who’ve sacrificed more than we could imagine from seeing their families or getting the care they need.
“Last year, we were behind from day one at about 4,000. Right now, the model has us over by about 600,” the head of Army recruiting said Wednesday.
We should be ashamed, heartbroken, furious, you name it. I certainly am. But then we should channel everything we’re feeling and use it as motivation to do better. To be better. To show even the tiniest bit of the courage and compassion that these veterans I met in Mexico have shown time after time, as they sacrificed for us in wars spanning the globe and now care for one another in desperate circumstances beyond our borders once more.
These veterans fought for us for so long. It’s past time that we start fighting for them, too.