I asked D.O.D. leadership, ‘Did you know ICE has stopped honoring this agreement?’ They had no idea. During the Trump administration, we had actually had folks who were in Iraq and Afghanistan whose spouse was detained by ICE and deported, and their kids were put into government care. Can you imagine being overseas and finding out your spouse has been picked up by ICE and now your children are being handed over to social services?
How did you get involved in this issue?
I was in command of a Blackhawk Company in Chicago in 2003. My unit was alerted that we were about to be mobilized. I started putting my unit through a premobilization checklist. That’s when I found out that some of my soldiers that I’d known for 15 years were not citizens. I didn’t know that before then.
These were guys I’d served with. I’d flown missions with them. I’d slept in the dirt with them. Under an executive order by President Bush, we were able to push through and get them their citizenship. But that’s when I first realized, ‘I’ve got guys in my unit,’ — these are key people; these are senior crew chiefs; these were the guys who set the standards — and I’m thinking, ‘What would I do without these guys?’ So we hustled and we got them their citizenship.
Then when I became a senator, people started asking me for the private bills to protect their servicemen and women. That’s when I really started digging into this issue.
At a recent hearing, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said he supports naturalization for undocumented service members, but raised concerns that the legislation was written too broadly and could protect people from deportation even if they’ve committed “very serious crimes,” such as robbery, drug trafficking and child molestation. Is that what you’re pushing for?
No, no. This is being mischaracterized. The bill would prohibit the deportation of veterans who are nonviolent offenders. It would establish a visa program where deported veterans may enter the U.S. as a legal permanent resident, so they can become naturalized citizens. It would extend military and veterans benefits to those who are eligible for them. I met a gentleman in Tijuana who was deported because he got a DUI. Now he’s in Tijuana and there’s no [Department of Veterans Affairs] hospital there. He needs VA care, which he has earned, is entitled to, and he can’t access it. My bill would allow them to access it.
I have a second bill that would identify noncitizens who are currently serving or have served. This would address the fact that D.H.S. does not keep track, when people are deported, whether or not they are veterans. We have folks coming before judges who served long and honorably in the military and the judge doesn’t know that and doesn’t know to take it into consideration when deciding whether or not to deport this person.