A group of House members who served in the Armed Forces, led by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., are calling for an end to the deportations of military veterans who are immigrants.
The lawmakers introduced a bill that would reunite deported veterans with their families and prevent the deportation of veterans in the future. The veterans are legal residents, which is required to serve in the military. Immigrants here illegally are barred from serving.
"Any immigrant documented or otherwise who puts their life on the line to serve the United States in uniform should be entitled to their VA benefits and a peaceful life in our great nation. It is incomprehensible that we treat some veterans like criminals more than heroes," Gallego said in a statement.
"A lot of them (deported veterans) know the next time they will be in the U.S. is when they are dead. That is the one benefit we still let them have, is we let them be buried in the U.S.," Gallego, who is a Marine Corps and Iraq War veteran, told NBC News Latino in a telephone interview.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., an Army veteran who served as a medic; Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., an Army veteran who served in Korea during the war and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves are original cosponsors of the bill, meaning they are the first to join in supporting the legislation Gallego drafted and helped introduce it.
The bill urges the Department of Homeland Security secretary to readmit veterans who have been deported and have not committed a serious crime. It also prevents the deportation of veterans who have served in the military at least six months and have not committed a serious crime such as rape or murder.
The deportation of veterans arose in the 2016 election during an MSNBC-Telemundo town hall featuring the Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It was held in Las Vegas in February.
Wayne Smith, vice chairman of Nevada Democratic Veterans and Families, said at the town hall that in the last 20 years hundreds of veterans who served in the military and were legal residents and ran afoul of the law because of drug possession or other non-violent crime, had their legal status revoked and were deported.
"In many cases, these veterans ended up in countries they left when small children, often unable to speak the language," Smith said. He then asked Sanders what he would do for such veterans if elected.
In his response, Sanders first spoke of his role as chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and how he worked to expand veterans healthcare and ensure veterans got all their benefits.
Sanders went on to say, "What you are describing to me seems to be an outrage. If people put their lives on the line to defend this country, are willing to die for this country, I don't think you should deport those people."
About a month later, while holding a campaign event on the Arizona-Mexico border, a small group of people who identified themselves as deported U.S. military veterans cheered Sanders from the Mexican side of the fence, The Associated Press reported.
Sanders and Clinton's campaign websites do not specifically mention deported veterans under their immigration platform, but both have been proponents of immigration reform, reuniting families and of President Barack Obama's executive action shielding millions of immigrants from deportation.
There are no exact numbers on how many veterans have been deported. Immigration officials do not ask about military service in the deportation process, Galleo said.
Gallego said he started work on the bill after a town hall with student veterans from Arizona State University where they told him of "The Bunker" for deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico.
"The Bunker" provides deported U.S. veterans support services, teaches them Spanish, which many don't know because they lived much of their lives in the U.S. and helps them find jobs.
"From the description during the town hall when they skyped in one of the (deported veterans), a lot are very crestfallen. They feel they've been abandoned," Gallego said.
An immigration law passed in 1996 makes many immigrants, including those who have established legal residency, deportable for non-violent crimes, such as drug possession. The law also allows the deportations to be retroactive.
"That our country deports those who have defended our flag and lived up to our nation's most important ideals tells you all you need to know about how broken our immigration system currently is," Serrano said in a statement. "Our nation needs comprehensive immigration reform, but this is a common sense first step that no one should object to."
It's an uphill climb to get any changes to immigration law with the ongoing presidential election and a court battle between the administration and 26 states over the president using executive action to protect millions of immigrants here illegally from deportation.
However the legislation could get added to other bills that Congress will try to get passed.
Gallego said although this is not a year for immigration reform, his legislation "is not really about immigration reform. It's about equitable treatment of veterans."