Service in the U.S. military can be a speedier route for people hoping to get citizenship, but it’s not a guarantee. Non-citizen veterans are subject to deportation for crimes committed after the military service, and application of those rules can be inconsistent across states. Reports indicate that at least hundreds of veterans have been deported, but no full accounting has ever been done.
Carlos Luna founded the organization Green Card Veterans in 2017 to help address what he sees as unequal treatment for veterans.
“We decided that the story of a veteran who had been deported from Chicago was an injustice that needed a veteran perspective to help address that issue,” Luna said. “So we mobilized, we organized and we started fighting this national fight from here in Chicago. It is a group of veterans and veteran family members who volunteer under the Green Card Veterans umbrella to address not just the deportation of veterans as a whole, but the different phenomena that lead to that outcome.”
Luna said Green Card Veterans’ stance is that rather than deport veterans to countries they often have no real history in, non-citizen veterans who commit crimes should remain in the U.S. for whatever consequences they might face.
“It has to be an aggravated felony that gets them deported and that is an aggravated felony according to the federal immigration system, so there can be check fraud, there can be DUI, there can be assault, there can be battery. … The range of crimes is pretty wide,” Luna said. “And that’s really one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to address this issue with one policy, because there’s a lot of nuances within that. For instance, a crime that was a felony 20 years ago might have been changed to a misdemeanor and because it’s now a misdemeanor and no longer recognized as an aggravated felony, veterans can then go through different processes to be repatriated without the aggravated felony on their record.”
“It is not very common knowledge, even amongst military members. … Many people believe that because they are serving in similar roles that they are U.S. citizens or that they’re granted U.S. citizenship upon entering, which is definitely not the case,” Luna said. “When a service member, for instance, applies for U.S. citizenship, they do get to the head of the line, but it’s still an application process that can and often does get denied. There was a study within the last five years that showed military members are actually denied citizenship at higher rates than non-military members, which doesn’t make sense — yet it is happening.”
Luna said the federal government has not addressed the issue comprehensively thus far, so the most successful efforts at repatriating veterans have been at the local level.
“We were part of a coalition here in Chicago of immigrant rights activists and Gov. Pritzker was able to provide this veteran clemency, which helped him to navigate the federal process,” Luna said. “In New Mexico, in California, in Arizona, a lot of those efforts continue there. Why? Because … it is a lot of local laws that really dictate what an aggravated felony is. So, because there has not been any type of umbrella policy that will help these men and women, they have to rely on local efforts.”