Few Options for Veterans Who Await Deportation

Few Options for Veterans Who Await Deportation

Some say their military service merits special consideration.

By Steve Liewer

Staff Writer

2:00 a.m. July 12, 2009

As a 7-year-old, Fernando Cervantes emigrated legally from Mexico to Texas with his mother in 1961.

At 18, in the waning days of the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army. Cervantes donned the khaki uniform, raised his right hand and swore to defend the Constitution.

“I thought it was my patriotic duty,” he said.

Thirty-two years after his honorable discharge, Cervantes is wearing the bright-orange shirt of a detainee at the El Centro Service Processing Center, where he has been held since the end of a three-year prison term last year for possession of methamphetamine for sale.

Barring an act of Congress, he will be deported to Mexico, a country he hasn’t visited since 1970. “I have no one in Mexico. Everything in my life is here,” said Cervantes, 55, of Victorville. “It’s very scary.”

About 32,000 foreign-born detainees await deportation at roughly 350 facilities nationwide – including the one in El Centro and another in Otay Mesa – operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or its contractors. An estimated 45 percent are legal residents who committed crimes ranging from murder to drug possession and were turned over to ICE after their prison terms.

No one has a reliable count of how many of them served in the U.S. armed forces. Rob Baker, field director of ICE’s San Diego office, ventured an estimate of half a percent, or fewer than 200 nationwide. Jan Ruhman of Rancho Bernardo, a Vietnam War vet who works with several anti-war groups, believes the figure is about 3,000.

Whatever the total, the deportation of veterans raises questions about the government’s responsibility to foreign-born noncitizens who have worn the uniform and, in some cases, shed blood in America’s defense.

Detained veterans believe they merit special consideration because of their military service. Some have sought out lawyers to press their case and have written letters to legislators, both to no avail.

“There’s people like me who will step up and defend this country,” said Rohan Coombs, 45, a Jamaica-born former Marine and Persian Gulf War veteran from Tustin who was stationed at Camp Pendleton for part of his six-year tenure.

He served time for drug crimes and is now at the El Centro facility.

“I’m not saying I’m a saint, but I think I deserve the right to stay here,” Coombs said.

Heather Boxeth, a San Diego attorney who handles criminal defense and immigration cases, is representing Coombs and another detained veteran for free.

“I’m not from a military family, and I’m not an Army brat,” she said. “But I thought there was something wrong with this.”

Plenty of people, though, said living in the United States is a privilege that foreigners forfeit with criminal behavior – even if they’re veterans.

“If they’ve not gotten citizenship, I have no qualms about deporting them,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Tom Richards of Rancho Bernardo, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who heads the state’s Legion of Valor. “The moral of the story is, you shouldn’t become a convicted felon.”

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Lakeside, is an Iraq war veteran who has helped foreign-born Marines under his command become U.S. citizens. He said veterans who have committed crimes deserve due process, but no more.

“If the law says you get deported, then that’s what happens,” Hunter said.

Until 1996, the law subjected foreigners to deportation only for the most serious crimes and gave immigration judges wide latitude to consider special circumstances.

That year, as part of a broad revision of immigration laws, Congress expanded the list of aggravated felonies for which foreign-born residents can be deported and greatly limited judicial discretion.

The revised list includes murder, kidnapping, rape and other violent crimes as well as forgery, theft and possession of drugs with the intent to sell.

“It sounds really good: Let’s deport people who commit crimes. But usually, it’s not significant crimes,” said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an attorney in Alaska who volunteers with the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Military Assistance Program.

Most of the veterans facing deportation were convicted of drug possession, Stock and other lawyers said.

Coombs said he started smoking marijuana frequently after his wife, Pamela, died in 2001 from diabetes-related complications.

“It started out as something that helped me go to sleep,” said Coombs, former manager of a Frazee Paint store. “To support my habit, I started getting a little extra (to sell).” He has been arrested three times and imprisoned once for marijuana violations.

Cervantes, a journeyman carpenter, started using methamphetamine in the early 1980s while working two jobs to support his wife and two children.

Three times he has served jail terms of less than a year for producing, holding or selling drugs. A fourth conviction in 2006, for sale and possession of less than 1 gram of meth, landed him in state prison and, eventually, in El Centro.

“For all these years, I thought I was an American citizen” because of the military service, Cervantes said. “To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.”

As far back as the American Revolution, the military has relied on foreign-born troops to fill its ranks. Green-card holders always have been subject to the military draft.

The Pentagon has offered foreign-born residents a fast track to citizenship in times of war. But Coombs and Cervantes said they didn’t think that option was important because recruiters had told them they would automatically become citizens once they enlisted.

Their deportation cases drew outside attention after Coombs’ fiancee wrote an e-mail that found its way to Ruhman, the veterans advocate. He met with Coombs and, over time, learned that at least 10 veterans were among the 500 detainees at the El Centro facility.

“I support ’em because I’m a (expletive) Marine, and Marines don’t leave anyone behind,” Ruhman said. He contacted Boxeth, and the two have reached out to veterans advocates and human-rights lawyers around the country. They’re trying to assess how many other veterans are awaiting deportation.

So far, they haven’t had much luck. They must be invited by a detainee before being allowed onto the grounds of a detention facility.

Boxeth said the legal system offers little hope of stopping the deportations because judges have lost most of that authority.

ICE does give field-office directors the right to review veterans’ cases. Baker, whose region includes San Diego and Imperial counties, said he sees about 10 cases a year involving veterans. He said he has never stopped proceedings on a case solely because of someone’s military record.

“I admire their service to our country,” said Baker, who spent 23 years in the Air Force. “But I don’t think that service qualifies them for an amnesty.”

Boxeth said her strategy is to prolong her cases while lobbying legislators to change the law. She met this month with Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Filner could not be reached for comment. Boxeth said he has agreed to sponsor a “private bill” granting relief specifically to Cervantes, though congressional analysts said few of such measures pass.

Boxeth said Filner also is considering broader legislation that would give foreign-born service members and veterans – including those already deported – the same rights as noncitizen U.S. nationals, such as people born in certain U.S. territories and possessions.

The change would shield them from being deported or allow them to return to the United States if they have left.

“These are still people who fought in our wars,” Boxeth said. “I don’t think enough of the American public knows what’s going on.”

Link to video

Steve Liewer: (619) 542-4572
[email protected]

In the Union-Tribune on Page A1