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The federal government has been looking into cases of U.S. military veterans who have been deported despite honorable service. That started after NPR reported about the situation earlier this year. And today the American Civil Liberties Union issued its own report on dozens of U.S. military veterans who remain banished. NPR's Quil Lawrence has the latest.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Daniel Torres spoke with NPR late last year at a support house for deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico.
DANIEL TORRES: When I enlisted, I didn't just want to be another Mexican living in the U.S. I wanted to be able to say that I had done something for the country.
LAWRENCE: In 2009, Torres deployed to Fallujah with the U.S. Marines. As he was preparing to deploy again, he got caught in a lie. He'd faked his citizenship to enlist. Torres found himself in Mexico unable to return to his family in the USA.
TORRES: We're not just some foreigners that got deported. We feel like Americans that have been banished, you know, that are in exile from the country that we love the most.
LAWRENCE: Swearing an oath of military service does not automatically confer U.S. citizenship. Many troops don't realize they need to apply and complete the paperwork. If they don't and they commit a crime later, they can be deported, says Bardis Vakili with the ACLU in San Diego.
BARDIS VAKILI: We have veterans who have been deported when they have never even spent a day in jail for relatively minor crimes that you would think a judge might forgive in light of honorable service.
LAWRENCE: The ACLU located 84 veterans with honorable service in the process of being deported or already stuck outside the U.S. Changes to immigration law in 1996 made deportation mandatory for a large category of crimes, including minor drug offenses, says Vakili.
VAKILI: We've had many judges quoted as saying, I thank you for your service; I don't have the authority to do anything for you, and I'm sorry. And then they order them deported.
LAWRENCE: A spokeswoman said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement respects military service. She said senior leadership must sign off on any deportation of a veteran. But she said ICE does not track the number or how often veteran status prevents deportation. However in the case of Daniel Torres, the story didn't end in Mexico.
TORRES: I'm currently in Salt Lake City, and I'm spending the summer with my family.
LAWRENCE: After his story aired on NPR this January, the ACLU says they were contacted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service about his case and others. Turns out since Torres served in combat, he was still eligible for citizenship. Now he's a U.S. citizen and reunited with his family after five years away.
TORRES: I feel energized (laughter). I look younger, even. I mean, I'm very, very happy to be here.
LAWRENCE: One of the things he's energized about is trying to help other deported veterans in Tijuana. A large group of them are planning to approach the U.S. border this Friday and turn themselves in with the aim of returning to the USA. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say that Daniel Torres deployed with the U.S. Marines to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2009. In fact, he went to an operating post just outside that city.]
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