Once again, PBS exposed an injustice that I thought I knew a great deal about.
The documentary “American Exile” deals with Armed Forces veterans who served and received honorable discharges, but were not granted citizenship because of trouble they got into after they were discharged. The crimes they committed varied from drug possession to some serious felonies.
Whatever the charges, however, it has dogged them from the time of their convictions. The range in age of these veterans goes all the way back to the Vietnam War.
My son is a Marine Corps veteran who served in the mid-1990s. His boot camp company included an Irish citizen who hoped to be granted citizenship when his service ended. When I met him when he and my son graduated from Parris Island, I thought to myself, what a wonderful way to become an American.
Ironically, it was during President Bill Clinton’s administration that a change occurred. With terrorism on the rise, Congress expanded the list of crimes that made warranted deportation of noncitizens.
As the news site Vox stated in 2016, “Legal immigrants — including green-card holders — can be deported if they’re convicted of certain crimes (which cover a broad umbrella of offenses, some of which aren’t violent). But in 1996, Congress radically expanded which crimes made an immigrant eligible for deportation.”
The broad net also included honorably discharged veteran noncitizens.
The committee working on this bill as it wound its way through Congress dropped a heavy ball. Why didn’t one of the lawmakers or someone in the Pentagon speak of the unfairness to veterans who were promised citizenship after their honorable service?
And why has it taken so long to address this flaw while so many noncitizen veterans are either fighting deportation or have been deported? They number about 30,000.
All those in the documentary were minorities, which makes sense. Studies have shown the top two countries of origin for foreign-born military personnel in the U.S. are the Philippines and Mexico, with 17% of those serving in the Armed Forces being of Hispanic origin.
Marine veteran Manuel Valenzuela was the central person in the documentary. He was so dedicated to this cause, he decorated his camper, donned the uniform he wore when he served during the Vietnam War, and headed to Washington.
When he attended one of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign rallies when she ran for president in 2020, she promised her support for his cause. Today, to his credit, President Joe Biden has a committee studying the situation and has allowed some deported veterans to return.
So where should this go and what that should be done? For a noncitizen to join our Armed Forces is by far the most patriotic path to citizenship.
They should receive their citizenship immediately upon receiving their honorable discharges. Group ceremonies could be held every month, where the veterans could take the oath as citizens. It would be a proud moment for the veterans and their families.
There are many problems and issues for many veterans, especially those who have been in combat. Whether they are veterans who are already citizens or immigrants wanting to be citizens, this is a pledge America should fulfill without question.
The problems of all veterans trying to adjust back into society are dealt with by our government with varying degrees of success. Those serving honorably have fulfilled their obligation. It is time for Washington to make citizenship for those who served honorably automatic.
Kevin Noa lives in Merrimac.