‘One deported veteran is one too many’: Democrats demand answers from ICE

Abbie Bennett
June 07, 2019 - 3:53 pm
Naturalization

US Navy Photo by Max Lonzanida

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not know exactly how many veterans it has deported over the last five years, according to a report from a federal watchdog office.

The report from the Government Accountability Office shows that ICE has policies in place for handling noncitizen veterans who may be subject to removal from the country, but “does not consistently adhere to those policies and does not consistently identify and track such veterans.”

When ICE agents know they have encountered “a potentially removable veteran,” the report said ICE’s own policy requires those agents “to take additional steps to proceed.”

But GAO found that “ICE did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans who were placed in removal proceedings” in 2013-18.

GAO said if ICE consistently followed its own policies, it would help the enforcement agency “ensure that veterans receive appropriate levels of review” before they are deported.

Not only did GAO find that ICE isn’t following its policies, it also found that the agency does not have a system in place to identify and document all the U.S. military veterans it encounters, so “ICE does not have reasonable assurance that it is consistently implementing its policies” for veterans.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and the Department of Defense have policies to help noncitizen service members become naturalized citizens. But the number of military citizenship applications USCIS received “declined sharply” two years ago, leading to fewer applications approved in 2018. DoD and USCIS attribute that decline to DoD policy changes that reduced the number of noncitizens joining the military, according to the report.

As a federal watchdog, GAO makes recommendations as part of its reports. GAO recommended that ICE ensure it is consistently implementing policies for handling veterans, develop a system to ID and track veterans and collect and maintain complete data on veterans who have been deported.

The findings in the report caused a swift reaction from Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., who sent a letter to acting ICE director Mark Morgan demanding answers.

“We cannot allow non-citizen veterans to fall through the cracks of our broken immigration system,” Takano said. “Deporting veterans represents a failure by our government that could have been prevented if ICE officials had been adhering to agency policies. This level of carelessness and disregard for official procedures is negligent and unacceptable. Although we do not know the exact number of deported veterans, we do know that one deported veteran is one too many. It’s one more veteran who does not have access to the benefits and care they earned and who has been removed from the country they fought for.”

In a statement emailed to Connecting Vets Thursday, an ICE spokesperson said the agency “respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans" and "any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an individual with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel … ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate. ICE specifically identifies service in the US military as a positive factor that should be considered along with other factors in the totality of the circumstances when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised.”

ICE said that in 100 percent of the veteran cases GAO reviewed, the veterans were placed into deportation proceedings “because of felony convictions related to drugs; sexual abuse, of which 18 involved minors; firearms, explosives, or explosive material; kidnapping; terrorist threats; and other crimes.”

“Our government is failing our immigrant veterans – men and women who have dutifully served our nation,” Vargas said. “The GAO report reveals obvious instances of mismanagement and policy noncompliance that have led to numerous veteran deportations. Our veterans deserve better protections and I am committed to finding legislative solutions to keep our veterans home.”

In their letter, the congressmen say the GAO report “highlights several breakdowns that have systematically occurred at every level when a potentially removable veteran is involved. When a potentially removable veteran is encountered, policies require additional assessments, reviews, documentation and proper management be conducted. ICE has a responsibility to ensure that its internal policies are being fully executed and that its staff are educated on these existing policies.”

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