A government watchdog has reported that, amid growing concerns over the treatment of non-citizen service members, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement is failing to identify all of the veterans among those it deports. ICE maintains that it continues to privilege the cases of undocumented veterans, as it did before the Trump administration.
"ICE has not developed a policy to identify and document all military veterans it encounters during interviews, and in cases when agents and officers do learn they have encountered a veteran, ICE does not maintain complete electronic data," according to a report published late last week by the Government Accountability Office.
The report explains that ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers conduct interviews with detainees in which they ask the prospective deportee's citizenship of origin and "most recent employer." "Officials stated that ERO officers would generally learn about the individual's veteran status during that interview," according to the report. "However, ICE does not have a policy requiring agents and officers to specifically ask about and document veteran status."
Existing ICE data shows that about 250 veterans were deported or set to be deported between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, but because ICE does not actively try to ascertain and record veteran status, "there could be additional veterans who were placed in removal proceedings or removed during the timeframe of our review," according to the report.
The watchdog also reports that, beyond not having policy to identify veterans in detention, ICE is not consistently following its own policies when it does identify non-citizen veterans. Before deporting the veterans, ICE policy requires that agents "conduct additional assessments, create additional documentation, and obtain management approval in order to proceed with the case," according to the report. "Consistent implementation of its policies would help ICE better ensure that veterans receive appropriate levels of review before they are placed in removal proceedings."
ICE says that, although the agency does not track the number of deported veterans, the veteran status of detainees is included in individual case notes. "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans," ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke says. "Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an individual with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel."
Bourke says that military service is considered "a positive factor" when the agency determines whether it should exercise prosecutorial discretion in individual deportation cases. "ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate."
Still, the agency removes people "convicted of aggravated felonies as defined under the Immigration and Nationality Act," Bourke says. Those convictions range from sexual abuse to terrorist threats, Bourke says, citing GAO's case studies.
Immigrant rights advocates underlined GAO's request that ICE fully implement its policies on both identifying and undergoing certain protocols before deporting veterans. "ICE must follow the GAO's request to finally implement its current policies. We must ensure veterans are identified and their service is taken into consideration as an important factor when they are placed in removal proceedings," says Christian Penichet-Paul, policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum, a non-profit advocacy group.
Concerns have arisen in recent years over how the Trump administration's immigration authorities maintain data regarding its treatment of the immigrants that it detains and deports. In December, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress that she did not know how many immigrants had died in her department's custody, provoking much outrage in the press.
Immigrant rights advocates have repeatedly warned that an absence of centralized counts by immigration authorities has made it more difficult to surmise the scope of the rights concerns that immigrants face. Earlier this year, Pacific Standard spoke with the Tahirih Justice Center advocacy group about the case of a young girl separated from her asylum-seeking mother because the girl was a U.S. citizen and therefore ineligible to be detained with her parent. It was impossible in that circumstance to ascertain the number of families stuck in that legal quagmire, because the government kept no tally of them.
The report of an absence of data and consistent policies in the deportation of veterans also comes amid concerns over the treatment of non-citizen service members. Data recently released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services revealed that, at the end of last year, service member naturalization applications were being denied at a higher rate than their civilian counterparts'. In response to those statistics, USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins told Pacific Standard that the agency "has long recognized the important sacrifices made by our nation's service members, veterans, enlistees, and their families, and continues to have a robust military outreach program to ensure they have access to accurate information about immigration services and benefits."
League of United Latin American Citizens national chairman for veterans' affairs Roman Palomares says that he will be meeting with Texan Democratic Representative Vicente Gonzalez, author of a bill to bring back deported U.S. veterans that has not yet cleared committee. Palomares plans to "talk about the bill and also to see what we can do regarding this [GAO] report and the requirements that the government agency had and they weren't following."
Palomares noted that, despite the aggravated crimes that ICE's Bourke describes, even convicted veterans deserve special considerations. "A lot of veterans that have returned from the Iraq War, Afghanistan War, these recent wars going on for the last 15 years—many of these men come back with [post-traumatic stress disorder]," he says. "The [documented] veterans that are citizens have the same issues, and they're being treated. As soon as [undocumented] veterans have an issue, they're deported" without the benefits guaranteed to veterans, regardless of citizenship status.
Where veterans who are allowed to remain in the U.S. face endless struggles with under-treatment, the many undocumented veterans who, for instance, end up living in the shelters along the Mexican border with the U.S. have no means of obtaining those services guaranteed them upon enlistment.
"The only way they can come back to the country is if they die—the United States will pay for them to come back in a coffin. That's unacceptable to us," Palomares adds.