Milton Tepeyac, who served eight years as a U.S. Marine, scrapes by on $3 an hour in this northern Mexican city, where he has lived since the U.S. government deported him in April.
His rented room floods when it rains. Scorpions skitter in. To kill them, he had to pay an exterminator $40 — more than a quarter of his weekly paycheck.
Once he served in the Kuwaiti desert in a recon battalion, a highly trained grunt monitoring the movements of Saddam Hussein’s military across the border in Iraq. Later he ran a seafood business in Phoenix, drove a BMW, and owned a five-bedroom house with a billiards room and a pool.
But then, with his business foundering in the 2008 recession, he was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal that turned out to be a police sting. He was convicted of felony “possession of marijuana for sale” and was sentenced to four years in an Arizona prison. When he completed his time, he was deported from the country where he had lived since he was 3.
“It was a stupid thing to do,” Tepeyac, 37, said of his crime. “I feel like I’m stuck in a perpetual nightmare. I can’t seem to adjust to this life. In the Marines, we have a motto that we never leave a man behind. I feel like I’ve been left behind.”
As a deported veteran, Tepeyac is one of a little-known cadre of warriors who served in the U.S. military as green-card holders — permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens — then committed a crime after returning to civilian life, were convicted and punished, then were permanently expelled from the United States.
No one knows how many there are. U.S. officials said they do not keep track, but immigration lawyers and Banished Veterans, a group formed to help the deportees, said that at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, have been deported in recent years.
Some committed felonies; others were deported for drug possession, bar fights, theft or forgery. Veterans who fought for the United States in wars from Korea to Afghanistan have been sent to Mexico, Germany, Jamaica, Portugal, Italy, England and other nations. Most of them came to the United States as children; many have been deported to countries where they know no one and don’t speak the language.
Deported veterans are receiving almost no attention in the Washington debate over immigration reform. Despite their full-throated support for U.S. troops, political leaders are generally unwilling to advocate on behalf of convicted criminals.
U.S. immigration law states that noncitizens who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to remain in the country. Deported veterans and their advocates say those who wear the uniform should be treated as U.S. citizens: punished for any crimes they commit, but not deported.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, said deporting veterans “is not fair, and it’s not appropriate for who we are as a people.”
“One thing America has always done is revere its veterans,” he said. “To say to them, ‘You swore to support and defend the Constitution and put your life on the line for the rest of us. But you’re not a citizen. So, too bad. You’re gone.’ I just think that’s not us.”
Although deported veterans are banned for life, they are welcome to return when they are dead. Honorably discharged veterans, even deportees, are entitled to burial at a U.S. military cemetery with an engraved headstone and their casket draped with an American flag, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA will even pay $300 toward the cost of bringing a deportee’s remains to the United States.
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One of the few politicians who have been willing to raise the issue is Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), an Army veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. He and a Republican colleague, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), introduced legislation this year that would have required the secretary of homeland security to sign off on each deportation proceeding against a veteran.
“If someone is willing to put on the uniform of the United States military, the last thing they should have to worry about is their immigration status and that of their family; we shouldn’t be deporting them,” Thompson said in an interview.
But in June, he said, House leaders declined to consider the proposal, a move that he called a “slap in the face to our veterans, our service members and our history as a nation of immigrants.”
Veterans are divided on this issue.
“We hold all military veterans in high regard, but if following our nation’s laws is a requirement for any guest to remain in our country, then that’s the law,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the nation’s largest veterans group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “An honorable discharge is not a free pass.”