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Should Military Service Earn Non-citizen Veterans a Second Chance at Citizenship?

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By Debbie Gregory.

A baby born on U.S. soil is automatically granted U.S. citizenship. Another path to citizenship is through military service. In fact, joining the U.S. military has always been one of the fastest ways to get U.S. citizenship. But it doesn’t happen automatically. And unfortunately, veterans who did not go through the process of becoming citizens, if they get in trouble, can be deported.

This is a fact known all too well by Hector Barajas-Varela. Born in Mexico, the 39-year-old Army veteran came to the U.S. illegally when he was seven. Although he donned a U.S. military uniform and received an honorable discharge, Barajas-Varela never followed through on his naturalization paperwork.

In 2002, Barajas-Varela was deported after pleading guilty to felony charges resulting from issues with alcohol and drugs. He founded the Deported Veterans Support House, known as the Bunker, a shelter for former U.S. military servicemembers who find themselves in the same situation.

The Bunker offers assistance and support from fellow veterans and volunteers.

Miguel Gabriel Vazquez is one of two Vietnam War veterans who offer counseling at the Bunker. Vazquez, a trained counselor with a master’s degree in psychology, comes to the bunker once a week to do individual counseling.

“They all have PTSD whether diagnosed or not,” said Vazquez, who has not been deported but lives in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, where he moved to write a book on healing PTSD naturally. “These guys get all that plus the trauma of being deported.”

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is considering Barajas-Varela’s application after his crime — discharging a firearm — was reclassified and is no longer an aggravated felony.

Naturalization used to be part of basic training, but the laws changed. As a result, lots of green card holders went to Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming citizens.

U.S. immigration law states that non-citizens who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to remain in the country. Deported veterans and their advocates say those who wear the uniform should be treated as U.S. citizens: punished for any crimes they commit, but not deported.