Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) called on Congress to make it easier for immigrant veterans to gain U.S. citizenship for their service, as well as pass legislation to aid those who have been deported under a complicated system she said often penalizes rather than protects.
Duckworth, a veteran of the Iraq War and a Purple Heart recipient, spoke before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety on Wednesday shortly after she released a report detailing the convoluted process noncitizen veterans face after their service. Immigrants have enlisted in the American military for centuries and have long been rewarded with an expedited pathway to citizenship for their service. However, those programs have been narrowed or eliminated in recent years, resulting in some veterans’ deportation.
“These are proud Americans who simply wish to become citizens of a nation whose uniform they’ve proudly worn in service. They are powerful assets,” the lawmaker testified, before noting that she had spoken with servicemembers who were instead “detained and deported by the same country they’re defending.”
“We don’t even know how many veterans have been deported because the United States government fails to even maintain a detailed record of veterans and military family members it callously removes from our country,” she continued.
The senator pointed to several acts by former President Donald Trump, including a 2018 decision to remove citizenship and immigration services from military training bases and an effort to lengthen the eligibility before noncitizen enlistees could apply for expedited naturalization. The Trump administration also closed a majority of its international field offices meant to aid servicemembers overseas attain citizenship.
The Obama administration also suspended a program called the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, in 2016. Trump made that suspension indefinite a year later and the Army drew fire after it temporarily began forcibly discharging hundreds of soldiers that enlisted as part of the program offering skilled immigrants citizenship in exchange for their service.
But broader issues remain throughout the government. The report found that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued deportation orders for 250 veterans between 2013 and 2018, ultimately following through on 92 cases. Veterans removed to their home countries are unable to access full Veterans Affairs benefits, including health care and disability compensation, even though they are entitled to receive them for their service.
“While Congress has provided servicemembers an expedited path to citizenship for over 200 years, far too many men and women who have worn our uniform never gain the citizenship they’ve earned through their service due to the unnecessary and complex barriers they face,” Duckworth said. “That’s why I’ll be re-introducing legislation shortly that would make it easier for servicemembers and Veterans to become citizens and ensure they can access the life-saving VA care they’ve earned through their tremendous sacrifices.”
Duckworth said she plans to reintroduce bills that would prohibit the deportation of those who are not violent offenders, and has also called for the reinstatement of MAVNI and the reopening of overseas citizenship offices. She also called on Congress to create a program to identify and bring home veterans who have been deported, saying the nation has a “duty to support our military members, veterans and their families.”
“These veterans are asking our help,” Duckworth told her colleagues on Wednesday. “We in Congress have the ability to take substantive, concrete action to bring these veterans home.”