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California lawmakers consider legal aid for deported vets

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Antonio Romo holds a picture of himself from his days at boot camp, as he stands next to the U.S. border wall on the beach in Tijuana, Mexico. Romo is one of dozens of U.S. military veterans who were deported after criminal convictions and have fought for years to be allowed to return.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Antonio Romo holds a picture of himself from his days at boot camp, as he stands next to the U.S. border wall on the beach in Tijuana, Mexico. Romo is one of dozens of U.S. military veterans who were deported after criminal convictions and have fought for years to be allowed to return.
Gregory Bull/AP

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The California legislature is considering a bill that would provide state-funded legal aid to deported military veterans. It has drawn bipartisan support and is headed for a possible vote on the Assembly floor next week.

The measure, AB 386, would commit the State Department of Social Services to contract directly or indirectly with a nonprofit legal group to provide assistance to immigrant veterans with green cards who have been deported following an honorable discharge.

"It's very hard once you've been deported to go into immigration court and argue your case to come back," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), the bill's author.

"That's a tough legal situation, so we know they need some extra help" trying to win permission to return to the U.S., she said.

If the bill is approved, California would become the first state in the nation to provide legal aid to deported vets, according to Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and a national expert on immigration law.

Veterans who run afoul of the law can be deported after serving time in jail or prison because they're not citizens. 

"People make mistakes," said Gonzalez Fletcher, noting that "a lot" of those mistakes are caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When someone is willing to die for this country and give us everything that they have ... we just thought it was time to figure out a way to get them back home," she said.

To be eligible for legal aid under the bill, a veteran would have to provide evidence of current or prior California residency. The measure lists nine ways to establish residency, including graduating from a state high school, being stationed in the state for military training or having a spouse or child currently living in California.

It's unclear exactly how many veterans could benefit from the bill. In 2016, 240,255 people were removed from the U.S., but Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that it does not track whether those removed have a military background.

In a 2016 report, the ACLU of Southern California found dozens of cases of veterans who faced deportation after their military service. The report, called Discharged, then Discarded documents 59 veterans from 22 different countries who have been deported in recent years or are facing deportation. Another advocacy group, called the Deported Veterans Support House, founded by Army veteran Hector Barajas in Tijuana, estimates that it has been in contact with over 100 veterans who have been deported.

Earlier this month, Gov. Brown pardoned three military veterans, including Barajas, who were deported, removing one obstacle to their return. 

Among the Republicans supporting the bill is Assemblyman Rocky Chávez (R-Oceanside), the c0-chair of the Assembly's Veterans Affairs Committee. Chávez, a Marine veteran whose district is home to Camp Pendleton,  has tended to vote against legislation that would assist immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. 

But it's a different matter when it comes to legal residents who served alongside citizens, he said.

"These individuals were in the foxhole fighting together," said Chávez. "Both of them were suffering the same horrors of combat together." 

The bill has passed the Assembly's judiciary and appropriations committees and Gonzalez Fletcher said she plans to bring it up for a vote on the Assembly floor next week.