Dozens of deported U.S. military veterans and their families celebrated Veterans Day in Tijuana, Mexico, with a special guest: Iraq War combat veteran and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
It was an emotional day at the Deported Veterans Support House, also known as the “bunker,” where deported veterans shared their stories with Duckworth.
The stories were eerily similar. The veterans were born in Mexico but were raised in the U.S. As young adults, they enlisted and served in the military. Years later, they were deported following a felony conviction.
“They all touched my heart,” Duckworth told WBEZ following the event.
“The fact they’ve had to watch their families grow up from [far] away. The fact that so many of them served and volunteered to serve,” Duckworth added. “The fact that many of them thought they had citizenship and then found out later that they didn’t have citizenship. Or that they can’t get their healthcare.”
Veterans Day is especially personal for Duckworth. She almost died on Nov. 12, 2004, during the Iraq War, when the helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down by insurgents. She calls Nov. 12th her “alive day.” Those memories were fresh for Duckworth as she spoke with the deported veterans on Monday.
“It always reminds me that I didn’t get left behind,” she said. “I feel like these guys got left behind, and I wanted to be here with them to show them they matter and that I appreciate their service and that there are many Americans who truly honor their service and sacrifice for our nation and that we are not going to leave them behind.”
Noncitizen veterans can be deported if they are convicted of certain felonies. It was an unintended consequence of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. Billed as an anti-crime effort, the law made it possible to deport legal permanent residents convicted of certain felonies.
Earlier this year, a federal government report found that about 250 veterans were facing deportation or had been removed from the country. Of those veterans, 85 percent were legal permanent residents and at least 26 veterans tried to become citizens. The report reviewed deportation cases between 2013 and 2018.
Nine of the deported veterans had service-connected disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said.
But the GAO found that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans who were placed in removal proceedings.” Those policies were meant to ensure that immigration enforcement officials take additional steps in those proceedings and consider the military service of noncitizen veterans facing deportation.
Many in attendance during Monday’s event in Tijuana said that they were moved by Duckworth’s decision to cross the border to honor the deported veterans.
“I want to thank Senator Duckworth for making the trip down here. She could have been anywhere in the world, but she chose to be here with her brothers,” said Chicago veteran Miguel Perez Jr.
Perez himself had been deported and lived in Tijuana for a year. Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker pardoned Perez, which cleared a path for him to gain his citizenship and to return to Chicago where he grew up.
Perez said he was grateful that Duckworth chose to spend Veterans Day in Tijuana giving many of his friends hope.
Duckworth said that she was unaware of the issue of deported veterans when she served in the military. After hearing about Perez, Duckworth started helping him try to find ways to stay in the U.S.
In 2017, Duckworth introduced a package of bills to offer assistance to deported veterans, including medical care, and to bring them back to the U.S. Those bills didn’t garner much support, so she re-introduced them earlier this year. Duckworth also sponsored a bill last week to protect family members of active military members and veterans from being deported. Support for those bills has been limited.
Another Chicagoan, Claudia Ramirez, also attended Monday’s Veterans Day celebration in Tijuana. Ramirez is a social worker and mother. Her father and Marines veteran, Javier Ramirez, was deported more than two decades ago following a felony conviction.
She said that her father last year was diagnosed with cancer and that he needs to be close to his family. Ramirez shared her family’s story with Duckworth and pleaded with the senator to help her family.
Ramirez said reading about Perez’s case and seeing Duckworth meeting with deported veterans gave her hope that her father might be able to come back to Chicago.
“She gave me real hope,” Ramirez said. “Who knows if it happens but just the point that she’s here and that she cares.”
Ramirez was a teenager when her father was deported. Now that she’s in her 40s, Ramirez is ready to speak out. “I was quiet for so long because I didn’t want people to judge me on my father’s actions,” she said.
But the road to bringing her dad back to Chicago will be long and challenging.
Among the hundreds of veterans who’ve been deported, only a few have been able to return home.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.