WASHINGTON — House Democrats are urging Veterans Affairs officials to increase services and outreach to deported veterans, arguing their immigration status shouldn’t overshadow their military service.
“These are still veterans,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., vice ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Most of them are just caught up in a broken immigration system. But you wore the uniform, you served, you shouldn’t be subject to these sort of problems.”
Last week, Takano and four other Democrats on the committee traveled to the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico. The site, which provides housing and aid to about 60 deported U.S. veterans living in the area, has been a focus in recent months of immigration activists critical of President Donald Trump’s policies.
But Takano said the purpose of his recent visit was to focus on whether deported veterans have reasonable access to benefits they’re still eligible to receive, and what changes should be made by Congress or VA officials to help them.
In meetings with the lawmakers, veterans at the Support House relayed stories of untreated mental health problems and other lingering medical issues, with limited medical help available. Takano said one veteran he met just started receiving VA disability checks, an income stream that he described as “life-changing” given his medical problems and unfamiliarity with how to find work in a foreign country.
An American Civil Liberties Union report in 2016 estimated that around 250 U.S. veterans have been deported in recent years for a variety of crimes, ranging from violent felonies to citizenship disputes.
The deportations came despite laws on the books for decades that give non-citizens serving in the U.S. armed forces eligibility for citizenship. Takano said many of the individuals he has met with either didn’t know how about that eligibility or did not know how to start the process, leading to a surprising exit from America when problems arose.
“A lot of these guys (in Tijuana) are just learning Spanish, because they lived in America their whole lives,” he said.
Takano has sponsored legislation that would allow some of those veterans to retroactively apply for citizenship, and has petitioned the Department of Homeland Security not to deport any veterans while the debate is underway.
But he and other committee Democrats also want to see VA administrators do a better job providing health care and benefits services to eligible individuals. Despite their deportation, many still qualify for disability payouts and VA-backed medical care.
“But to get it, some of these guys have to travel 26 hours by bus to Mexico City for an appointment,” Takano said. “They only get reimbursed for the travel weeks afterwards. And if they miss the appointment, they get nothing.”
He wants to see VA officials make more telehealth services available to veterans in foreign countries, or more arrangements for the veterans to see local doctors. Democrats on the committee are also inquiring whether the Veterans Crisis Line can be used by veterans overseas to receive emergency mental health counseling.
Takano is hopeful he’ll get support from Republicans on his committee to push VA into administrative action, even though the veterans are viewed as criminal foreigners by many conservative groups.
“Many of the vets we met with were older guys, who ran into problems with drugs because of post-traumatic stress disorder issues,” he said. “But because of paperwork and other mistakes, they end up outside the U.S.
“Some of these people are real criminals and shouldn’t come back. But for many of these veterans, I think the public would be upset if they knew what has happened to them.”