Conservatives should help our “banished veterans”

It took an uncommon amount of courage and patriotism to join the U.S. military back in 2007.

We had just rolled the dice on a surge of troops in Iraq, the death toll there was climbing, and few American families wanted their sons or daughters to enlist in what appeared to be a lost cause.

But in Idaho, a young Daniel Torres heard the call of his adopted country and answered loud and clear.

“I’ll do it,” he recalled himself saying. There was only one problem: Torres was Mexican, and he gave the military recruiter a false birth certificate so he could join.

“When I enlisted, I didn’t just want to be another Mexican living in the U.S.,” he said in a story titled “Service Members, Not Citizens: Meet The Veterans Who Have Been Deported” that aired last week on National Public Radio. “I wanted to be able to say that I had done something for the country.”

And do something he did.

Torres became a United States Marine, one of the few and proud who have guarded our nation’s freedom for more than 240 years. He eventually deployed to Iraq in 2009 and spent time outside of Fallujah, a particularly hellish place. He survived, returned home, and was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan when everything unraveled. Torres lost his wallet, and the process to obtain replacement documents revealed his use of a false birth certificate.

That probably wouldn’t have been a big deal in decades past. We’ve all heard stories about veterans of World War II lying about their age to enlist, and most people assume military service entitled one to citizenship.

Not these days. Torres was subsequently discharged, deported, and dropped over our southern border into Tijuana, Mexico.

The young Marine feared he’d be alone, but he eventually found a place called “The Bunker,” a veteran-run charity for deported former service members who lack housing, employment, and the care and benefits they were promised by the Veterans Administration. They may have served in the American military, the law says, but they got into trouble before officially becoming American citizens, so out they go.

The government doesn’t keep an official count of how many veterans we’ve deported, but advocates say the numbers are probably surprisingly high.

So much for leaving no man behind.

Advocates for these “banished veterans,” as they’ve come to be known, blame their predicament on the continued deadlock over comprehensive immigration reform. Unless the whole mess is fixed in one fell swoop – borders security for the right and amnesty for the left – these deported veterans will be left in limbo.

But this isn’t just an immigration issue. It’s a veterans’ issue, and if we believe all of our talk about how they should be honored and even given special consideration at times, then this policy is an injustice and our continued inaction is an outrage.

Efforts to change the law in past years have fallen flat, perhaps because the wrong people and the wrong party advanced them. Some people think that any immigration-related bill introduced by Democrats is somehow linked to their plans for amnesty.

But pro-military conservatives – particularly immigration hawks like Senator Jeff Sessions and Congressman Mo Brooks – could bring the stature, the credibility, and the votes needed to change this law. Nobody would mistake a bill they’d sponsor as anything that would remotely weaken our immigration laws.

I’m sure there are those who’ll highlight reasons for keeping the law as-is or not mounting a serious effort to change it, but that’s why we have principles, right? And one of those principles is that we honor those who’ve worn the uniform of a United States soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or coastguardsman, and when they break the law we treat them fairly and justly. We don’t just toss them out of the country.

“We’re not just some foreigners that got deported,” Torres told NPR. “We feel like Americans that have been banished, you know, that are in exile from the country that we love the most.”

Hopefully conservatives will change the law this year and give special consideration to these veterans. They’ve earned it. Otherwise, our claims of supporting the troops might begin to ring a bit hollow.