Civil and Immigrants’ Rights Organizations Urge Federal Clemency for Military Veterans Vulnerable to Deportation

January 18, 2024 9:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Organizations representing noncitizen military veterans whose federal criminal convictions make them vulnerable to deportation are urging President Biden to use his pardon power to ensure people who have served our nation are not exiled from the only country they have ever known as home.

In a letter sent to Elizabeth Oyer, the Justice Department’s pardon attorney, the American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, the National Immigrant Justice Center, and partners highlight the critical service noncitizen veterans have provided to our country for centuries, the immigration consequences of criminal convictions for noncitizen veterans, and how presidential pardons will keep families together.

“Many veterans face challenges reintegrating into civilian life after military service and wind up entangled in the criminal legal system. But instead of being provided rehabilitation and care — many return home with physical injuries or mental health diagnoses — noncitizen veterans face a second punishment for their criminal conviction: permanent removal from the nation they swore to protect. This is cruel and unjust, but with the stroke of a pen, President Biden can make sure these people can remain in the country they call home,” said Jennie Pasquarella, immigrants’ rights director at the ACLU of Southern California.

One in three veterans have been arrested or jailed at least once, often for crimes stemming directly from traumatic experiences related to their military service. For noncitizen veterans, many criminal convictions — including for nonviolent and misdemeanor crimes — can result in the mandatory deportation for lawful permanent residents and lifetime bars to reentry and naturalization. For the vast majority of noncitizen veterans who came to the country as small children, deportation means being sent to a country where they may have never visited, have no family or support system, and may not even know the language.

Jose Francisco Lopez, for example, is a 79-year-old veteran who immigrated to the United States as a child with his family to Wichita Falls, Texas. When he was 23 years old, he was drafted and served honorably in the Vietnam War, earning the Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze service stars. Like many veterans who experience the trauma of war, he returned to civilian life facing addiction and was eventually arrested for a drug related crime in 1994. He was rehabilitated in prison, but was deported to Mexico in 2003 following his release, separating him from his five U.S.-citizen children.

Under the Biden administration’s Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI), Lopez was repatriated to the United States in 2023. More than 85 others have been returned to the U.S. under the initiative. The White House invited Lopez to a Nov. 11, 2023 Veterans Day event with President Biden, and a federal pardon would make Lopez eligible to naturalize based on his military service.

“All I want now is to be buried on U.S. soil as an American citizen. The person I was 30 years ago is not the person I am now. That person was addicted to drugs to cope with the trauma of Vietnam; the person I am today has been sober for decades and is devoted to serving veterans in need. I ask only for forgiveness from President Biden, so that I may live my remaining days as a U.S. citizen,” said Jose Francisco Lopez, who founded and runs the Deported Veterans Support House in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The letter urges the Biden administration to adopt a process for pardoning noncitizen veterans, including people repatriated to the U.S. under the IMMVI and others facing removal or barriers to naturalization due to a federal conviction. “For these individuals, deportation — permanent banishment from the United States — is a uniquely harsh and disproportionately unjust outcome that can and should be waived through the President’s pardon authority, as Congress intended,” the letter reads.

“Clemency is a powerful tool to correct injustices – it can offer people second chances and their freedom, but it can also do so much more. It can provide justice for people who have served in our military and have since been deported. Our Constitution gives the president clear authority to forgive past and current offenses, and President Biden must remedy this injustice now,” said Tara Stutsman, senior campaign strategist with the ACLU’s Redemption Campaign.

“Congress intended executive pardons to be the safety valve to prevent unjust deportations otherwise mandated by our immigration laws. Veterans, whether citizens or noncitizens, should reunite with their families and communities upon completion of their service–not permanently banished from all they know and love. President Biden can and should correct this injustice by pardoning these veterans, so that they may remain permanently in the United States with their families,” said Amanda Schuft, legal services director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

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