November 09, 2023

Duckworth introduces legislation to tackle deportation, mental health challenges with immigrant veterans

Source: The Hill


Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) will introduce a set of bills Thursday to address the deportation of immigrants who served in the U.S. military and to help ensure they are connected to mental health services with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Duckworth’s HOPE Act would allow nonviolent, deported immigrant veterans to temporarily return to the U.S. for treatment at a VA facility on a case-by-case basis. Like other veterans, immigrants who served can struggle with mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, but noncitizens can also face deportation if convicted of even minor criminal offenses, effectively cutting off access to needed treatment through the VA.

The Veterans Visa and Protection Act aims to streamline the citizenship process, create a pathway for those who are deported to return home and allow them to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident during the removal process.

And the I-VETS Act will require the Department of Homeland Security to identify and track immigrants who are serving in the U.S. armed forces, which could protect them from deportation and help facilitate the citizenship process as well.

Duckworth, who is unveiling the legislation ahead of Veterans Day on Saturday, said the removal of immigrants who served in the military continues to be a major problem.

“The rates of deportations are not as high as they used to be under the Trump administration, but we still have a problem,” she told reporters on a press call. “We still have veterans who are stuck overseas, who because of the systems that are in place are not able to come back into the country to get the help that they need.”

Immigrants have served in the U.S. since the Revolutionary War, and the Pentagon continues to rely on their services in every military branch.

Serving with the military opens up a direct path to citizenship and allows immigrants to receive expedited processing toward naturalization, but those who do not complete the process during their years of service risk deportation.

The U.S. has deported tens of thousands of immigrant veterans since the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which tightened deportation laws and made it easier to remove immigrants for non-violent offenses.

The Trump administration imposed stricter policies, such as mandatory wait times and the closing of naturalization offices abroad, which resulted in a high rate of immigrant veterans being denied citizenship.

President Biden announced a directive in 2021 to help facilitate citizenship for immigrant veterans and bring them hope, but the move has been considered by veterans advocates a temporary fix to a larger problem.

Duckworth, who is a veteran, said many immigrants have “fought to defend our nation and its ideals.”

“Yet the reality is that far too many men and women have been deported by the very same nation they risked their lives to defend,” she said. “Our deported immigrant veterans fought for this country and it is past time we fight for them too.”

A Democratic group of lawmakers in the House reintroduced a bill earlier this year to make the citizenship process easier for immigrant service members and help those deported without a serious crime conviction to obtain legal permanent resident status.

But it’s not clear whether the Republican-controlled House would move on such legislation.

Duckworth has introduced legislation before to improve the citizenship process for immigrant veterans but said she is confident her latest bills can be passed in Congress or inserted into a larger piece of legislation.

“We’re going to try and do what we can to get this across the finish line,” she said. “If we’re going to honor our veterans on Veterans Day, then we need to honor all of our veterans on Veterans Day.”

By:  Brad Dress