Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth is unveiling a legislative package Thursday that would protect from deportation military servicemembers and veterans who don't have U.S. citizenship, as part of a new effort to reverse Trump-era policies.
Duckworth is introducing three new bills that would ban the deportation of foreign-born veterans who are not violent offenders; create a new tracking system for noncitizens who currently or previously served; and allow deported veterans who are nonviolent offenders to temporarily re-enter the country for medical care.
"Far too many men and women willing to wear our uniform have been deported by the same nation they risked their lives to defend due the unnecessary and complex barriers," said Duckworth, a veteran combat Army pilot who lost both her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq nearly 20 years ago.
At least a half dozen Democratic members have signed onto Duckworth's plan, including Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen of Nevada. Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, also a Democrat, is sponsoring one of the proposals in the House.
The bills also have the support of the American Legion. But it's unclear how much support the measures have in Congress, where Democrats hold a thin majority.
The proposal comes in response to then President Trump's pausing in 2017 of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MANVI, program, which recruited more than 10,000 noncitizens with medical, cyber, language and other skills into the military, according to Duckworth's report. Thousands were left in limbo as a result of Trump's actions.
President Biden has signaled support for allowing active troops to naturalize, issuing an executive order in February to help facilitate the effort. But Duckworth argues legislative fixes are critical.
Her Veterans Visa and Protection Act would, aside from prohibiting deportation of veterans in certain cases, also establish a visa program for those already expelled from the country to seek residency. The deported veterans could enter the U.S. as legal permanent residents to become naturalized citizens.
"Any person brave enough to put their lives on the line for our country should not face deportation upon returning home from war," said Grijalva, who is sponsoring the House version. "This legislation will allow us to honor our commitments to immigrant veterans and bring them home to live freely in the country they enlisted to serve and receive access to the VA benefits they earned through their sacrifice."
The law currently allows certain servicemembers to apply for naturalization, but some individuals don't complete the process in time and are deported if they commit any crime. Duckworth argues that veterans who don't complete the process on time face a convoluted path to residency; if a crime is committed, she says, the path is even more arduous.
U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement issued an estimated 250 removal orders for veterans from 2013 to 2018, and deported 92 of those, Duckworth's report said. However, that number could significantly undercount the actual tally, since there isn't a widespread system to track veterans who have an ICE encounter, she said.
The senator's second proposal, the Immigrant Veterans Eligibility Tracking System, or I-VETS Act, would identify non-citizen servicemembers or veterans when they are applying for immigration benefits.
That information is not clearly tracked by the federal government, and perhaps not included as part of immigration and other proceedings. The tracking system could also help the Department of Homeland Security fast-track veterans and servicemembers applying for naturalization, Duckworth argues.
Finally, a third measure, the Healthcare Opportunities for Patriots in Exile, or HOPE Act, would allow non-violent, deported veterans to temporarily enter the United States to seek care at a Veterans Affairs facility.
Currently, all military veterans can access treatment from VA facilities for service-related injuries. However, those struggling with post-traumatic stress and other issues may engage in risky behaviors, leading to a criminal charges in some cases that will force non citizens to be deported. But the HOPE Act, Duckworth says, would allow the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily allow deported veterans to return for medical care.
"These important bills would make it easier for servicemembers and veterans to become citizens," Duckworth argues, "enabling them to live here with their families and ensuring they can access the life-saving VA care they earned through their tremendous sacrifices."