US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Immigrant soldiers shouldn't face deportation

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Immigrants have been welcomed into the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War. Commodore John Barry, often called the father of the U.S. Navy, served with distinction and was from County Wexford, Ireland. But then many if not most patriots were foreign born.

The Irish and German immigrants knew hostility until their units distinguished themselves in Civil War battles like Gettysburg. Ironically, the same Irish troops that fought on that bloody ground were sent to quell their rioting countrymen protesting the unfair and corrupt draft laws in New York City.

Even to this day the (documented) immigrant non-citizen is welcomed to fight our wars. Last year there were almost 17,000 immigrant men and women in the Armed Forces. Their reward, if they should die in action, is posthumous citizenship and military burial. For those who survived, naturalization and citizenship came at the same pace as other legal immigrants.

Now that the military is having problems attracting volunteers for Iraq and Afghanistan, there are proposals of granting citizenship to immigrants on induction. In the future, immigrant soldiers, sailors, and airmen would have all the rights and protections of a citizen. They don't have them right now.

Immigrants who serve in our military and fight in our wars face the same dangers and military laws as their native buddies. But, if they get into a bit of trouble after they get out, there is a big difference--they are liable to be deported. How many have been deported? No one knows, not even the government, but estimates are in the thousands. Immigrant veterans that get caught up in the courts use to have their service records considered in sentencing. But in 1996, Congress expanded the offenses that made one deportable and, as a consequence, a veteran's service in the Armed Forces does not have to be considered by immigration judges.

If citizenship is granted to recruits, the problem will eventually go away. But there are still many who have suffered. They may have come back from the gulf with injuries and illness that turn them to drugs or violence. But now their service time means little in court. Advocates for military personnel and veterans join with immigration advocates to get the courts to show some leniency toward them. The offenses that render them deportable--note these are "legal" immigrants--are often slight, such as possession of marijuana. (For some horror stories, check out this AP article.)

Happily the U.S. Sentencing Commission seems ready to instruct the courts to consider the veteran's service record and Congress is aware of the problem. Fairness demands, not that we excuse their crimes, but that we respect their service to the country, judge with compassion the circumstances of their crimes, let them serve their sentences. It's most ungrateful to throw them out of the country for as little as possessing marijuana.