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Congress Must Act and Stop Deporting Our Veterans | Commentary

As Congress and the Obama administration look for ways to address our broken immigration system, one step is clear. They have the authority to, and must, end the deportation of our veterans.

It is hard to believe that the United States deports men and women who have honorably served in our armed forces, but it’s true. Despite their service and steadfast loyalty, thousands of veterans have faced deportation or have been deported during the past several decades. For a nation that usually honors the men and women who defend America’s liberty and freedom, the denial of these very rights to military veterans is shockingly hypocritical.

Each year, thousands of lawfully present noncitizens enlist in the United States military; as of 2008, there were 65,000 immigrants serving on active duty. They are not citizens; they are green card holders and others who are in the United States lawfully. According to a Defense department study, noncitizens are considered “a valuable enlisted recruiting resource” and a “source of greater diversity,” and their attrition rates are substantially lower than that of U.S. citizens.

Fabian Rebolledo is one such individual. Fabian served as a field artillery paratrooper in Kosovo and was deported after depositing a bad check he received on a construction job while working as a general contractor. He was deported in 2010. Fabian spent most of his life in California, after coming to the United States with his family at age 13. His 13-year-old son is now forced to live without his father.

Lawful permanent residents may enlist in the military, but they face deportation if they are convicted of a criminal offense or otherwise violate immigration laws. As a result of current law, hundreds of veterans like Fabian have been deported in recent years for crimes that are classified as “aggravated felonies” under immigration law; yet the term aggravated felony is a misnomer because many of these offenses are neither aggravated nor felonies. An immigration judge is not permitted to consider the individual circumstances of anyone who has an “aggravated felony” conviction. It doesn’t matter how old, minor or non-violent the offense, or if the individual has long since been rehabilitated. Such a person’s fate is sealed: He or she must be detained and deported.

The administration’s current deportation priorities target so-called criminal aliens, many of whom have aggravated felonies on their record. These priorities must be reconfigured. The kinds of offenses that fall under the “aggravated felony” category include even minor charges such as petty theft and marijuana possession. Thousands of individuals who are deported each year fall under this category, and many are legal permanent residents with U.S. citizen family members and longstanding ties to the community. None of their individual circumstances such as military service can be considered before they are deported.

When the current immigration laws were signed into law almost two decades ago, Sen. Harry Reid said, “These measures have now snared immigrants who spilled their blood for our country. As the INS prepares to deport these American veterans, we have not even been kind enough to thank them for their service with a hearing to listen to their story and consider whether, just possibly, their military service or other life circumstances outweigh the government’s interest in deporting them.”

Enacting such harsh laws was a mistake. Judges should be allowed to consider honorable military service and other circumstances when deciding whether to deport a veteran like Fabian. The cruel and unnecessary deportation of military veterans is un-American. Taking past military service into account when deciding whether a veteran should be deported is what judging is all about. Allowing judges to be judges upholds America’s basic constitutional principles of justice and fairness under the law.

Current immigration law must be reformed and rewritten in order to uphold basic due process protections. A legislative overhaul of the current immigration system is critical in order to ensure a just outcome for not only our nation’s veterans, but for the thousands of families being separated on a daily basis. As of today, the House of Representatives continues to thwart any prospect of comprehensive immigration reform, but our country cannot wait any longer to correct the inefficiencies and inhumanity of the current system. Critical to a legislative overhaul is restoring judicial discretion in our immigration courts. Judges must be able to consider the individual circumstances of a case before rubber-stamping someone’s automatic deportation.

The House of Representative must act now, and the administration should do what it can to end the deportation of United States veterans today. The harsh and punitive policies that result in the separation of families and the permanent banishment of U.S. military veterans must be corrected. There is no excuse to deny these brave men and women the most fundamental due process protections we fight so diligently to preserve and protect around the world.

Margaret D. Stock was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2013. She is an attorney and expert on immigration and national security. In 2010, she retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve’s Military Police, after 28 years of service. She is currently an attorney with the Anchorage office of Cascadia Cross Border Law and is the author of “Immigration Law and the Military” (2012).