WASHINGTON — The Biden administration unveiled plans Friday to bring hundreds, possibly thousands, of deported veterans and their immediate family members back to the United States, saying their removal “failed to live up to our highest values.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered his department’s immigration agencies to “immediately” take steps to ensure that military families may return to the United States. He said the department would also halt pending deportation proceedings against veterans or their immediate relatives who are in the United States, and clear the way for those who are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
“The Department of Homeland Security recognizes the profound commitment and sacrifice that service members and their families have made to the United States of America,” Mayorkas said in a statement Friday. “We are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled.”
President Joe Biden had promised on the campaign trail to direct DHS during his first 100 days in office to stop targeting veterans and their families for deportation and to create a process for veterans deported by the Trump administration to return to the United States.
Veterans advocates have expressed concern in recent weeks that few veterans or their relatives have returned, while others remained in deportation proceedings. Many deported veterans also say they have been unable to access benefits such as health care from overseas.
In a memo Friday, the heads of DHS’s immigration agencies said they will review policies to ensure that military veterans and their relatives are “welcome to remain in or return to the United States.” Officials said they would also work with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department to ensure that veterans can access their health benefits, including coronavirus vaccinations, and that recruits can take the oath of citizenship, including while at basic training.
DHS will establish a “Military Resource Center” online with a toll-free number and email address to help families with their immigration applications.
“It’s our responsibility to serve all veterans as well as they have served us — no matter who they are, where they are from, or the status of their citizenship,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “Keeping that promise means ensuring that noncitizen service members, veterans, and their families are guaranteed a place in the country they swore an oath — and in many cases fought — to defend.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported veterans for decades, including when Biden was vice president. The precise number of deportees is unclear because the government failed to screen veterans before deporting them, a 2019 Government Accountability Office report found. Advocacy organizations estimate the government deported hundreds of veterans and thousands of their relatives.
Typically veterans were deported because they were convicted of crimes. Veterans advocates have said that many fell into trouble because of post-traumatic stress disorder related to their military service. But many of their relatives had no criminal records, such as the mother of an Air Force staff sergeant who returned last month.