A False Choice: Immigrants vs. Veterans
As the recent attacks in Turkey and Belgium yet again demonstrate, international acts of terrorism continue to have polarizing effects on domestic immigration policy.
This contentious debate of balancing between accessible borders and national security heightens during election years, as it has on the campaign trail leading up to the United States’s 2016 presidential election.
Amidst this policy conversation exists an underlying frustration that the United States unfairly puts first or favors illegal immigrants over veterans. For instance, in a 2014 ad attacking his opponent, Senator Bill Cassidy (R–LA) directly addresses the camera:
“What would you choose? To fund benefits for veterans or for illegal immigrants? I would never put illegal immigrants ahead of veterans. But Mary Landrieu did. Instead of fully funding veterans’ benefits, she voted to give benefits to those here illegally…”
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump expressed similar sentiments last year that “illegal immigrants get treated better than many of our vets — it’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country.” While a surprisingly noble call to action for the inadequate medical and financial support U.S. veterans currently receive, this strategy of pitting two seemingly disparate demographics of the U.S. population only further polarizes any meaningful immigration or veterans affairs reform. Furthermore, illegal immigrants and veterans are not as mutually exclusive as politicized rhetoric makes it out to be.
According to data from the Department of Defense, more than 65,000 immigrants (non-U.S. citizens and naturalized citizens) serve in the armed forces on active duty. While it may not be apparent to politicians or the American public, executive orders have historically allowed noncitizens to become U.S. citizens through military enlistment. In a July 2002 executive order, President Bush specified that noncitizen military personnel serving on or after September 11th, 2001 were eligible for expedited citizenship. The success of immigrant recruiting programs, such as the U.S. Army’s Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), only further illustrates that “the U.S. military needs smart and talented people like these immigrants, who continue the proud historical tradition of immigrants…”, according to retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel Margaret Stock. As a result, the notion that supporting illegal immigrants takes away federal funding for veterans is counterintuitive and does not do justice to foreign-born individuals who only desire the legal status that faithfully serving under the American flag should entail.
However, bureaucratic processes are unevenly applied and it is not uncommon for military recruiters to mislead enterprising service members and claim that citizenship will be automatic. Veterans who do not go through the process of becoming citizens can be deported, if they get into legal trouble later on, just like any other noncitizen. In fact, many are unaware that the United States even deports military veterans. Advocates estimate there are now at least 2,000 veterans living in northern Mexico, many in border towns such as Tijuana and Juarez. The Deported Veteran Support House, a small storefront in eastern Tijuana, is one of the few existing organizations that provides any type of aid or advocacy for stranded veterans.
The fact that this type of diaspora even exists, illustrates the harm unconditional immigration policy and congressional partisanship can have on the people it claims to help. The false vilification of illegal immigrants for the inadequate treatment American veterans receive—who unjustly languish in hospital lounges waiting for appointments—is blatant when deported veterans (legally eligible for VA benefits and medical treatment from injuries suffered during their service) equally carry the burden of an ineffectual Department of Veteran’s Affairs. As long as politicians continue to paint the complex issue that is immigration with such a broad rhetorical brush, any meaningful reform is unrealistic.