It's an insult to veterans of our armed services and an embarrassment to the nation. But it has nothing to do with football players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
While Vice President Mike Pence performed his pre-staged taxpayer-funded hissy fit — walking out of an Indianapolis Colts game as his counter-protest against kneeling NFL players — hundreds (the exact number is unknown) of deported U.S. military veterans remain languishing outside of the United States, unable to return to the country for which they put their lives on the line. Worse, most of these deported veterans are older men forced to live their golden years without their families and stripped of the health benefits their honorable service entitles them to.
And no, this national shame can't be pinned on President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant policies, because it's been happening under four presidents and counting as a result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 — passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton — which vastly enhanced the number and scope of deportable offenses, including misdemeanors.
According to a 2016 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report titled "Discharged and Discarded," the act also "eliminated the discretionary authority of immigration judges to consider factors like long residence, rehabilitation, family ties, and military service."
Furthermore, the ACLU report asserts that "the federal government lost, misplaced, or failed to file the applications of many veterans who applied for naturalization," and that veterans who cannot afford an immigration lawyer are not provided one, forcing them to defend themselves against the government that failed them. Even more despicably, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has for more than a decade ignored a Bush administration edict ordering the agency to consider military service when placing people into deportation proceedings, and to keep track of the number of veterans it deports.
Military veterans — the universally venerated class of Americans we express solemn gratitude toward during pre-game performances of “The Star Spangled Banner" — who are permanent residents of the United States but not fully naturalized U.S. citizens are vulnerable to deportation for non-violent crimes (such as petty drug offenses) for which they have already paid their debt to society.
Many deported veterans were enticed into military service under the promise that they would be fast-tracked on a path to citizenship, but until very recently, few were given the guidance to navigate the red tape necessary to fulfill that promise. Though the military has reportedly improved its efforts on this front, a common lament among deported veterans — including combat veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq — is that they were led to believe by recruiters, superior officers, and administrators that their service automatically entitled them to the full rights of citizenship.
But that is not true, as "untold numbers" (in the ACLU's estimation) of veterans have been deported over the past two-plus decades, cruelly punishing them a second time for their mistakes — which include trusting their superiors.
This past Friday a delegation of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs visited the Deported Veterans Support House (a.k.a. "The Bunker") — a privately supported home in Tijuana, Mexico that serves as a semi-permanent shelter for over a dozen deported veterans.
"There's nothing like being in the presence of people who have gotten a raw deal and who love their country, even though their country is not showing them the requisite love it should," Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told The Daily Beast. "They've made mistakes, but they are mistakes which would have been dealt with in a much different way had they been full-on citizens."
Takano says that among the deported veterans with whom he spoke was a former Marine injured in the 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon (which killed 241 American service personnel) who now is unable to receive medical treatment for the disability he incurred while serving the United States.
"It's emblematic of an irrational immigration system," Takano asserts. "At the very least, we ought to put a stop to the deportation of veterans and make sure they have access to the their health and education benefits."
The Veterans and Visa Protection Act of 2017 — introduced in March by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — would not only protect non-citizen veterans from deportation unless they were convicted of a violent crime, it would allow deported veterans to return to the United States and receive their full complement of benefits plus a path to citizenship. According to Task and Purpose, the bill has 48 House co-sponsors, all Democrats.
A nation that is perpetually at war and relies on an all volunteer army absolutely owes a debt of gratitude and respect to its veterans. But the fetishization of socially compulsory rituals like standing for the national anthem doesn't make Veterans Affairs hospitals run competently. And cynical stunts like Vice President Pence's choreographed walkout at the Colts game won't reunite deported Vietnam veterans with their families.
Americans can allow themselves to get sucked into a manufactured culture war argument over whether a peaceful protest against racism and police brutality is a slap in the face to the military and the symbolic inanimate object that is the flag. But this relies on the condescending assumption that veterans are all of a single mind regarding racism, dissent, and what it means to be an American, while also mistaking easy gestures like standing for 90 seconds with one's hand on heart as giving veterans their due.
In a saner world, the fact that "untold numbers" of honorably discharged veterans have been deported over the past two decades — often because their government failed to aid them through dystopian amounts of red tape — would be dominating the national conversation about who is really disrespecting veterans. But that would force many Americans who believe the military is a monolith when it comes to football players expressing fealty for the flag and the national anthem to confront the reality that in America some veterans are more "American" than others.