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Congressman wants 'second chance' for veterans facing deportation

Nikki Wentling | Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON – One Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is seeking a second chance for veterans who were convicted of crimes and face the possibility of deportation.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced legislation late Thursday to have the Department of Homeland Security consider a veteran’s moral character and honorable service above a criminal conviction when reviewing naturalization applications.

Honorably discharged veterans who are noncitizens of the United States are deemed lawful permanent residents and granted authorization to live in the country. Under the current law, if they are convicted of crimes, they are deported after they serve their sentences. Advocates estimate 3,000 veterans have been deported under this rule, though an accurate number is difficult to know because the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t track it.

“America is a country that believes in second chances, and few deserve a second chance as much as these veterans,” Takano said in a prepared statement. “Treating people who risked their lives for freedom so callously violates the respect and gratitude we owe to all who have served.”

The bill, the “Second Chance for Service Act,” would apply to honorably discharged veterans. It excludes veterans convicted of aggravated felonies, such as murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, child pornography, human trafficking and treason.

In the last several weeks, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has also called for the government to stop the deportation of veterans. On June 3, a delegation traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, where they met with veterans who told them of struggles being separated from their families and challenges accessing health care.

Members of the caucus asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to intervene. On June 20, they requested a meeting with Shulkin to discuss ceasing veterans’ deportation and providing earned VA benefits to veterans who have already been deported.

They also want to talk with Shulkin about the VA better educating veterans who are eligible to apply for citizenship. There are 10,644 noncitizens serving in the U.S. military and 11,524 more in the reserves, the caucus wrote.

Military members are automatically granted the right to citizenship, but they must apply for it. The American Civil Liberties Union reported last year that many servicemembers don’t realize their naturalization is not automatic.

The caucus received notice from the VA on June 21 that the request to Shulkin had been received. As of Friday, caucus members had yet to receive a response about setting up a meeting, said Carlos Paz, the caucus’ communication director.

Shulkin told Buzzfeed News last week that he was open to the possibility of expanding VA eligibility and extending services to veterans living abroad, including in Tijuana. However, he said he first wants to ensure veterans in the United States are receiving timely care and that extending services wouldn’t happen this year.