Veterans Speak with Illinois Senator on Deportation, Naturalization Process

Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth spoke with U.S. military veterans on their experiences and hardships with deportation after returning from combat.


Bond Chapel

By Roshini Balan, Contributor

The social and emotional consequences of deportation for U.S. veterans were discussed on Friday November 13, when the University of Chicago’s Office for Military Affiliated communities hosted a panel on the deportation of United States veterans along with the School of Social Service Administration, Green Card Veterans, and Iraq War Veteran Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that over 92 veterans have been deported from 2013 to 2018. ICE has admitted, however, that they cannot confirm an exact number and the actual count could be far higher. Duckworth began the conversation by explaining the issues veterans face when returning from combat: “Deportation of U.S. vets has been an issue that is largely invisible to the public eye. When veterans return, the process of getting citizenship is not easy.” She discussed how veterans deal with a lot of emotional issues; the circumstances when they’re home make it hard to access the resources they need to deal with the emotional uncertainty.

“They may find themselves deported to a country they don’t know, are separated from family, navigate complex new environments, and deal with legal issues,” Duckworth said. She added that the stress caused by a fear of deportation can compound with pre-existing conditions such as PTSD.

Alfredo Gonzalez, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Assistant Professor in Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, discussed the interdisciplinary nature of dealing with the deportation of veterans. “There are intersections between immigration law, criminal law, social justice, and social service,” he said.

Other veterans shared their experiences being deported after returning from their military service. Hector Barajas, a U.S. Army veteran, was honorably discharged and pleaded no contest to a felony three years later. He served his sentence and yet was still deported afterwards (Barajas finally became a citizen in 2018). He emphasized that he ended up getting deported after a year of fighting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on his own because of a lack of government assistance. “There is no program […] no one helps you through the process of citizenship,” Barajas said.

Miguel Perez Jr., another deported and repatriated army veteran, also expressed how difficult he found his return to civilian life. “I couldn’t seem to make any decisions in life. Life was hard to maintain because I was still going at the pace of war,” Perez said.

After serving half of a 15 year prison sentence for a nonviolent drug charge, Perez was deported shortly after his release from prison because he was a legal permanent resident and not a citizen. This led to him being central to the creation of Green Card Veterans, an organization that attempts to influence policy by stimulating productive discussions about non-citizen veterans.

Carlos Luna, a U.S. Navy Corps veteran and member of Green Card Veterans, further elaborated on the purpose of the organization. “Thirteen of us started Green Card Veterans because we needed to stop the deportation of these veterans,” Luna said. “It’s in our nature not to leave someone behind.”

“Naturalization is introduced as a benefit, to entice people to come and serve their country and a lot of these people just want to serve this country, not gain citizenship,” Gonzales said. “There is a disconnect between whether the service the immigrants are performing is sufficient to gain political rights. They should be given civil rights and that is to live in the country unrestricted.”

“There should be someone giving you citizenship during these deployment proceedings,” Duckworth agreed.

Though joining the military was once a path to citizenship, Gonzales said that this changed following the Nationality Act of 1940. “Veterans assume the burdens of a citizen without a guarantee to citizenship,” Gonzales said.