Milton Tepeyac, who served eight years as a U.S. Marine, scrapes by on $3 an hour in this northern Mexican city, where he has lived since the U.S. government deported him in April.
His rented room floods when it rains. Scorpions skitter in. To kill them, he had to pay an exterminator $40 — more than a quarter of his weekly paycheck.
Once he served in the Kuwaiti desert in a recon battalion, a highly trained grunt monitoring the movements of Saddam Hussein’s military across the border in Iraq. Later he ran a seafood business in Phoenix, drove a BMW, and owned a five-bedroom house with a billiards room and a pool.
But then, with his business foundering in the 2008 recession, he was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal that turned out to be a police sting. He was convicted of felony “possession of marijuana for sale” and was sentenced to four years in an Arizona prison. When he completed his time, he was deported from the country where he had lived since he was 3.
“It was a stupid thing to do,” Tepeyac, 37, said of his crime. “I feel like I’m stuck in a perpetual nightmare. I can’t seem to adjust to this life. In the Marines, we have a motto that we never leave a man behind. I feel like I’ve been left behind.”
As a deported veteran, Tepeyac is one of a little-known cadre of warriors who served in the U.S. military as green-card holders — permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens — then committed a crime after returning to civilian life, were convicted and punished, then were permanently expelled from the United States.
No one knows how many there are. U.S. officials said they do not keep track, but immigration lawyers and Banished Veterans, a group formed to help the deportees, said that at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, have been deported in recent years.
Some committed felonies; others were deported for drug possession, bar fights, theft or forgery. Veterans who fought for the United States in wars from Korea to Afghanistan have been sent to Mexico, Germany, Jamaica, Portugal, Italy, England and other nations. Most of them came to the United States as children; many have been deported to countries where they know no one and don’t speak the language.
Deported veterans are receiving almost no attention in the Washington debate over immigration reform. Despite their full-throated support for U.S. troops, political leaders are generally unwilling to advocate on behalf of convicted criminals.
U.S. immigration law states that noncitizens who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to remain in the country. Deported veterans and their advocates say those who wear the uniform should be treated as U.S. citizens: punished for any crimes they commit, but not deported.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, said deporting veterans “is not fair, and it’s not appropriate for who we are as a people.”
“One thing America has always done is revere its veterans,” he said. “To say to them, ‘You swore to support and defend the Constitution and put your life on the line for the rest of us. But you’re not a citizen. So, too bad. You’re gone.’ I just think that’s not us.”
Although deported veterans are banned for life, they are welcome to return when they are dead. Honorably discharged veterans, even deportees, are entitled to burial at a U.S. military cemetery with an engraved headstone and their casket draped with an American flag, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA will even pay $300 toward the cost of bringing a deportee’s remains to the United States.
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One of the few politicians who have been willing to raise the issue is Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), an Army veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. He and a Republican colleague, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), introduced legislation this year that would have required the secretary of homeland security to sign off on each deportation proceeding against a veteran.
“If someone is willing to put on the uniform of the United States military, the last thing they should have to worry about is their immigration status and that of their family; we shouldn’t be deporting them,” Thompson said in an interview.
But in June, he said, House leaders declined to consider the proposal, a move that he called a “slap in the face to our veterans, our service members and our history as a nation of immigrants.”
Veterans are divided on this issue.
“We hold all military veterans in high regard, but if following our nation’s laws is a requirement for any guest to remain in our country, then that’s the law,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the nation’s largest veterans group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “An honorable discharge is not a free pass.”
Craig Shagin, a Pennsylvania lawyer who represents Tepeyac and is a leading national advocate against deporting veterans, calls the issue “a question of loyalty.”
“When Milton was in the Marines, doing dangerous work on behalf of the United States, we treated him as an American,” Shagin said. “Why would that change when he is out of uniform? Because he failed to file a couple of pieces of paper?”
Of all Tepeyac’s mistakes, one he especially regrets is not applying for citizenship when he was eligible. If he had, he would not have been deported.
Under U.S. law, Tepeyac had been entitled to apply for citizenship when he was 18; he had received his green card five years earlier. Also, once he joined the military the next year he could have applied for citizenship immediately, under a policy Bush enacted in 2002.
But he never filled out the paperwork. He said he thought that he automatically became a citizen when he swore his Marine Corps oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“It never really crossed my mind that I could ever be deported,” Tepeyac said.
According to the Pentagon, about 35,000 noncitizens are serving in the U.S. military. Since 2009, about 9,800 military recruits have earned their citizenship during basic training in a program run by the military and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
They are part of more than 89,000 people who have received citizenship through military service since 9/11. That includes 140 who were granted citizenship after being killed in the line of duty.
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Tepeyac and his family earned green cards in an amnesty signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, when Tepeyac was 13. His parents had brought him to Arizona illegally from Mexico when he was 3.
He played baseball and soccer, played trumpet and trombone in the school band, and enlisted in the Marines two weeks after his 1995 high school graduation.
His eight years in the Marines took him to the Pacific and the Persian Gulf, to Kenya after the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, and to Kuwait twice in the late 1990s. With “USMC” tattooed on his right calf, he earned medals and commendations — Good Conduct Medal, Armed Forced Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal — and was honorably discharged in 2003.
“Milton was a good Marine,” said Jon Batts, who was Tepeyac’s supervisor for part of his time in the Marines and is now an active-duty Army staff sergeant based at Fort Hood, Tex. “He could have sacrificed his life for the United States, and he’s going to get deported? There’s an injustice going on.”
After his discharge, Tepeyac started a seafood distribution business in Phoenix. When it failed, he said, he became depressed, started using drugs and fell in with the “wrong crowd.” He was busted twice, for possession of cocaine and then drug paraphernalia, and placed on probation. Then in October 2009, he said, a friend offered him $1,000 to interpret for him and count cash in a deal involving 91 pounds of marijuana.
“Like an idiot, I went with him,” he said.
Tepeyac’s felony conviction put him squarely in the crosshairs of President Obama’s administration, which has deported people in unprecedented numbers. Obama has already deported nearly 1.9 million people, surpassing Bush’s total of 1.6 million deportees in eight years, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When Tepeyac finished his prison sentence in April, immigration officials drove him to the Mexican border at Nogales. With nothing but the baby-blue prison-issued clothes he was wearing, he was turned over to Mexican officials.
His sister Liz met him there, and bought him dinner, clothes and toiletries. She gave him $500 and the phone number of a cousin who lived in Hermosillo who had agreed to take him in.
When he finally found a place of his own he could afford, it was so filthy that he spent two days bleaching the floors, walls and ceiling.
“I know I messed up bad,” he said. “But I did my time, and I gave four years of my life in prison. Why should I be punished again?”
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Many deportations of veterans can be traced to changes to immigration laws passed in 1994 and 1996.
First, Congress, in an effort to tighten immigration controls, greatly expanded the list of more than 30 categories of offenses for which a person can be deported, adding crimes such as forgery and any theft that carries a sentence of one year or more.
The government calls those offenses “aggravated felonies,” but immigration lawyers say that many of them do not fit the common definitions of “aggravated” or “felony.” Shoplifting is generally a nonviolent misdemeanor, but if a judge imposes a sentence of one year or more — even if that sentence is suspended — a noncitizen shoplifter can be deported.
The definition of “aggravated felony” is “a fraud on the American people,” said Margaret Stock, an Alaska immigration lawyer who is also a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Military Police and taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Stock said she once defended a National Guardsman in Alaska who was charged with a firearms violation after he drove into a school parking lot, forgetting that his legally registered gun was in the car.
Federal officials tried to deport him to the Philippines. Stock said she was able to avert the deportation by persuading the local prosecutor to downgrade the offense to disorderly conduct.
Stock said the complex list of “aggravated felonies” is the subject of regular challenges that occasionally reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
In April, the court ruled, 7 to 2, against the government in its attempt to deport a green-card holder from Jamaica, who had lived in the United States for 30 years. He was caught by Georgia police with enough marijuana for about two joints. The court ruled that “social sharing of a small amount of marijuana” was not an “aggravated felony.”
“I haven’t gone through any of these cases personally,” said Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But some are pretty obvious. Picked up for a couple of joints? That’s not deportation material, in my opinion.”
The 1996 changes to immigration law were also retroactive, so they included offenses committed “at any time” in a person’s life. In addition, they banned immigration judges from exercising discretion in most deportation cases, essentially taking away their ability to grant mercy.
This resulted in deportations of green-card holders that Congress hadn’t intended, said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which handled immigration enforcement before the Department of Homeland Security was created.
She said the retroactivity clause was “almost unprecedented in our legal system.” And she said taking away a judge’s discretion eliminated any chance for a veteran such as Tepeyac.
“It’s tragic in a case of somebody like this, who is not a hardened criminal,” she said. “Pre-’96, a judge would have been able to grant relief.”
The 1996 laws did not address military service. But ICE Director John Morton issued a memo in 2011 instructing his agency to take a person’s military service into account when considering deportation.
Asked for comment for this article, ICE issued a statement saying that “ICE respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service” and that “any deportations of military veterans must be approved by a senior ICE official.”
“ICE is committed to ensuring that its limited resources are focused on the removal of those who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens ,” the statement said, adding, “ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis as appropriate.”
In February 2012, Shagin filed an appeal of Tepeyac’s deportation order, citing Morton’s memo. A U.S. immigration judge in Tucson denied the appeal in December, ruling that noncitizens must prove that they are of “good moral character” to remain in the United States.
Tepeyac was ineligible in part, the judge wrote, because U.S. immigration law says a person convicted of an aggravated felony at any time in his life “is forever barred from establishing good moral character.”
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Tepeyac now lives in a 13-by-13-foot efficiency apartment in this desert city about 300 miles south of Phoenix. He survives mainly on Costco food — cans of tuna and “Instant Lunch” noodles — brought to him by his two sisters and his mother, all U.S. citizens, who make the six-hour drive from Phoenix every few weeks.
Tepeyac is gregarious and friendly and speaks in unaccented American English, as well as Spanish. In his khaki cargo shorts, Air Jordan sneakers and Ralph Lauren shirts, he looks unmistakably American.
He washes his clothes in a concrete sink behind the house. He recently found a job, earning about $3 an hour as an English-speaking operator at a call center that provides tech-support for cellphone customers in the United States.
“I miss the way of life in the U.S.,” he said. “I miss the little things that you take for granted. I miss going to the Circle K to fill my car up with gas. I never went to New York. I always wanted to go, and I never got the chance.”
Shagin said Tepeyac’s best chance of returning to the United States would be Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform that allows deported veterans a chance to return. Or, he said, a lawmaker could introduce a “private bill” specifically for Tepeyac, reversing his deportation. He said neither seems likely.
Aware of that, Tepeyac became emotional when talking about his family in Phoenix.
“They come to visit,” he said, “and that’s the closest thing I have to touching home.”