The United States Army marches during the Fiesta Flambeau Parade in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, author Marian Eide says civilians should listen to the stories of veterans who served in the country's "forever" wars. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Esperanza and Miguel Perez Sr. entered the United States from Mexico with their son and became legal permanent residents in the late 1980s. They lived and raised Miguel Jr. in Chicago.

Miguel Jr. went on to enlist in the U.S. Army in 2001, serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he suffered a brain injury in an explosion and developed severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. Becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol, he resorted to petty crime to maintain his habit and ended up serving seven years in prison.

Last September, he was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and remains in detention in Wisconsin awaiting deportation.

His family fears that despite their son’s service to his country, he will be sent across the border to an uncertain future. And Perez isn’t the only green-card veteran facing deportation. Others like him already have been deported, said members of a panel on the topic of veteran deportation Friday at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) convention.

“Miguel fought for this nation,” said his mother, holding up a photo of her uniformed son to the audience as she spoke Spanish. Emma Lozano, a Chicago-based activist, translated for her.

“[Miguel] was in a battle where he left his blood on the ground in a foreign land,” she said. “He fought for this nation, so he should be able to live in this country. He should be treated with respect and dignity.”

Manuel Valenzuela was a U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam. He was born in Mexico but grew up in the United States; his mother was a U.S. citizen. Valenzuela said he thought being a U.S. soldier and the son of a U.S. citizen would mean automatic citizenship. But in 2009, he received a deportation notice based on his arrest for a misdemeanor drunk and disorderly charge from two decades prior. Manuel’s brother and fellow Vietnam veteran, Valente, also got a deportation notice.

“This was serious stuff. They’re throwing veterans away like we’re nothing,” said Valenzuela, who appeared in full dress uniform. It’s the same uniform he’s worn to his deportation hearings as he tries to fight removal and advocate for others in similar situations.

ICE officials have said they don’t track the number of deported green card-carrying military veterans. But advocates estimate there are at least 2,000 U.S. veterans living in northern Mexico with more elsewhere.

Activists say many of these deported veterans live in border cities, struggling financially. Some English-speaking veterans, advocates say, can find work in service-sector jobs. Yet others are targeted by gangs and drug cartels for their weapons training and hand-to-hand fighting skills.

But it’s not just veterans being deported. Some members of Gold Star families, who have lost an immediate family member on the front lines, also face deportation amid stepped-up immigration enforcement efforts.

Olivia Segura, a U.S. citizen, began Ashley’s Memory Project to honor her daughter Ashley Sietsema, who was killed in action in 2007 in Kuwait. Since Ashley’s death, her stepfather Alberto has spent years trying to gain citizenship, but has been denied because of two felony drug convictions that date back to over a decade. Now, he faces deportation.

Olivia Segura said she and her family behaved dutifully during Ashley’s service, and continue to be patriotic Americans long after her death.

“When a soldier goes to war, their whole family goes to war,” Segura said.

Several groups are trying to raise awareness about the deportation of military veterans. LULAC Council No. 5310 in Chicago is focusing on stopping green-card veteran deportations. The Valenzuela brothers use Facebook to share news of their own legal challenges and those of fellow veterans. Another Facebook group exists where members seek to support deported veterans and their families.

In March, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, which would facilitate naturalization for thousands of legal permanent resident veterans. The legislation would end deportation for those currently involved in deportation proceedings and protect access to health care for legal permanent resident veterans.

LULAC officials have expressed support for the legislation with the hope that it can be expanded to include members of Gold Star families.

Panelists said one problem facing green-card military personnel lies with the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative, launched in 2009. It’s designed to give legal residents the chance to become naturalized citizens upon graduation from basic military training. However, panelists noted that many such individuals are not aware of the initiative or simply don’t realize they need to apply to gain citizenship.

Panelist Julio Cortez read a letter that Miguel Perez Jr. sent from the detention facility at which he is being held.

“I’ve been asked over and over why I didn’t apply for citizenship while I was in the service,” Perez’s letter stated. “Nobody mentioned it or said anything to me. Guess a lot was going on.”

Lozano, a church pastor in Chicago and a longtime Latina activist, said all those worried about these types of deportations must share their concerns with their elected officials.

“We have to stand up and have a conscience,” she said.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.