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After deported veteran's death, a renewed push to end removals of former military

An online poll of active-duty military and veterans showed support for protecting noncitizens and their families from deportation.

AUSTIN, Texas — Although he works to keep the border secure, Customs officer Robert Mosqueda says a law that deported his military veteran father and kept him out until his death is “completely wrong.”

Mosqueda’s father, Carlos Torres, died last month in Mexico, where he was born. His family brought his body back and Torres, a Vietnam era veteran, was buried on U.S. soil with military funeral honors.

“I see it as completely wrong,” Mosqueda, 34, an officer with Customs and Border Protection on the U.S.-Mexican border, told NBC News on Wednesday.

In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act that made punishments of immigrants who commit crimes — including entering the country illegally — more severe. Under that law, legal residents are deportable for a list of crimes that was expanded and the penalties are retroactive.

“I believe this is a law that should be changed,” Mosqueda said, adding that only noncitizen veterans and immigrants who commit the most serious crimes should be deported.

Image: Robert Mosqueda kneels at the grave of his father Carlos Mosqueda, a Vietnam veteran deported from the United States.
Robert Mosqueda kneels at the grave of his father Carlos Mosqueda, a Vietnam veteran deported from the United States.Courtesy of the Mosqueda Family

Mosqueda said he is not completely clear on the details, but his father served four years on a drug conviction. Mosqueda said his father told him he was driving the car with a friend who committed the crime but his father was unaware that was his purpose.

Although Congress took some small steps last year to tweak the federal criminal justice system and ease some sentencing mandates, veterans' deportation was not part of the legislation. Trump campaigned, in part, as an advocate for victims of crimes committed by immigrants and their loved ones.

"My dad, he knew that it was wrong what they did. He never hated the government and he would say 'It is what it is' and deal with the consequences," Mosqueda said. "But he loved this country more than Mexico. They deported him but deep inside, he was an American."

Poll: Most military members oppose deportation

An online poll of active-duty military and veterans released Wednesday by Smithsonian, Stars and Stripes and George Mason University showed support for protecting noncitizens and their families from deportation.

Stars and Stripes invited its 23,000 digital subscribers to participate in the poll. Of the 1,031 who responded — 922 of them veterans and 109 active duty — 87 percent said noncitizens serving in the military should be immune to deportation.

On the other hand, 65 percent said they support the use of the U.S. military armed services at the U.S.-Mexico border “to prevent people from entering the U.S. illegally.” (Active-duty military did not do Customs checks, apprehensions or drug seizures while at the border, but did help repair fencing and other barriers on the border.)

Pushing for change

Several bills have been filed in Congress addressing deported vets. The one with the most Democratic supporters was filed by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who said he'll reintroduce his bill, the Veterans Visa Protection Act.

"The American people spoke loud and clear in November they wanted action on immigration and that includes fixing the shameful practice of deporting those who served in the armed forces," Grijalva said. "Protecting veterans shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Another bill introduced last session was filed by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas. Torres' family lives in his district. It was co-sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Image: Carlos Torres in August 2017.
Carlos Torres in August 2017.Courtesy of the Mosqueda Family

“Carlos Torres served this country, and in return, this country failed him,” Gonzalez said in a statement last month. “He fought for a home that turned him away, and in the end, he never saw that home again. There is no excuse for this. No military service members should die in vain.”

Hector Barajas, a deported veteran, was allowed to return to the U.S. after he was pardoned by outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown of California. Some advocates are pushing for other states to do the same, since prospects from immigration reform in Congress are uncertain. He founded the Deported Vets Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, has become a citizen and still works to stop veterans deportations.

"Any veteran can go back to the U.S. when they die," Barajas said. "The worse part is, not only do you come home, but then you are honored as a veteran even when you weren't allowed to come home. You honor veterans by taking care of them here when they are alive."

He's optimistic that with Democrats in control of the House progress will be made on the issue. "We have to work on getting some Republicans on board. If we can, it will move things along," he said.

The cause of deported veterans has yet to be part of the central agendas of nationally recognized veterans groups, but there are efforts to pull in the support of the politically influential Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Local, state efforts

At the local and state level, groups are trying to build support to push for reform of the law making legal residents deportable.

Wednesday night, a San Antonio American Legion local chapter signed a resolution that opposes deportation of honorably discharged or retired veterans who have committed nonviolent crimes and calls for the return of those who have committed nonviolent crimes to be returned.

Image: Carlos Torres is surrounded by his grandchildren at his birthday celebration on Aug. 12, 2018.
Carlos Torres is surrounded by his grandchildren at his birthday celebration on Aug. 12, 2018.Courtesy of the Mosqueda Family

It also calls for noncitizen veterans to be allowed to become citizens within five years of separation from the military.

The resolution is similar to one signed last August by the American GI Forum — a national veterans group and civil rights organization. The group was founded in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1948 to combat the denial of basic rights to American veterans of Mexican descent and went on to fight for other civil rights.

Lawrence Romo, the American GI Forum’s national commander, has been at the forefront of the effort to get more veterans groups to oppose veterans deportations.

“The way I see it that it’s going to get done is we need to get community-based organizations and veterans based organizations to advocate as a group,” said Romo, who headed Selective Service, which registers all young men in the U.S. regardless of citizenship or immigration status to be on hand if a military draft is ever instituted.

The National Immigration Forum, which has in the past run programs to galvanize support for immigration reform from law enforcement officers, business people and evangelicals and others in the religious community, has also created the Veterans for New Americans.

The group is tackling several issues regarding noncitizens, the military and veterans and support for bipartisan immigration reform.

Mosqueda said his father had applied twice for his citizenship, years after leaving the military but his application was denied both times. Mosqueda did not know why.

Since his father's death, Mosqueda has been studying the family's history. Like other families from Texas and living on the border, the history of who was born on which side is unclear, but Mosqueda said that his great-grandmother was an American citizen, born in Texas.

CORRECTION (Jan. 3, 5:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of a U.S. military veteran who was deported to Mexico and died there last year. He was Carlos Torres, not Carlos Mosqueda.