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There are about 90,000 military veterans in this country who are not American citizens - that's according to the Migration Policy Institute. One of those veterans is a veteran of the Iraq War living in South Texas. He is now facing deportation over a felony conviction unless an immigration judge decides to let him stay. NPR's John Burnett has the story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The army veteran is husky and bearded and physically bigger than the Central American men who sit glumly on a bench in immigration court. Edgar Baltazar Garcia wore combat fatigues when he manned a .50-caliber machine gun nicknamed Lucifer (ph) in the turret of a Humvee when he was in Iraq 15 years ago. Today, his uniform is a red jail jumpsuit with the letters PIDC on the back - Port Isabel Detention Center. The judge calls the court to order.
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BARBARA GONZALEZ CIGARROA: This is the immigration court in Port Isabel, Texas. Immigration Judge Cigarroa presiding on March 6, 2019.
BURNETT: At this, the initial hearing, his attorney, Carlos Garcia, asks the judge to dismiss Baltazar's case.
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CARLOS MOCTEZUMA GARCIA: He's an Iraqi War (ph) veteran who suffers from PTSD and is currently detained.
BURNETT: The judge denies the motion to terminate the case, and Baltazar is led with the others back to their cells. The infantryman, despite his combat medals, got into some serious trouble after he came home from war. In one incident, he pointed a gun at his domestic partner. In a second incident, he punched her. She filed charges. Baltazar was found guilty of aggravated assault on a family member with a deadly weapon. Because he served in Iraq, his case was moved to a special county court for veterans. There, he received a deferred sentence.
Things were going well. Baltazar was attending counseling sessions and passing drug and alcohol tests. In February, he drove to Mexico to see a nephew fight in a boxing match. When he tried to return to Texas, federal agents checked his record, spotted the felony and took him into custody. His attorney, Carlos Garcia, says the way the law works, Baltazar could not be deported for his crime as long as he stayed in the U.S.
MOCTEZUMA GARCIA: But once you leave, and you come back, it's a completely different ball game because the rules at the port of entry are completely different for people who are entering the country and considered what they call arriving aliens.
BURNETT: Asked to comment on the case, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement referenced the Immigration and Nationality Act which says non-citizens who commit aggravated felonies are to be detained and processed for removal. Baltazar was born in Mexico. His parents brought him to the U.S. when he was 14. He never got around to getting his citizenship. Baltazar speaks on a tinny phone line from inside the razor-wired detention camp.
EDGAR BALTAZAR GARCIA: Then we have citizens born in this country that they can go out and commit a crime...
BURNETT: He says, U.S. citizens can go out and commit a crime. They never fought for their country, and they're not deported. I make one mistake, and I have to pay the price by leaving the country.
Edgar Baltazar's woes are not a product of President Trump's crackdown on immigrants. The United States has been deporting convicted immigrant veterans for decades, and for decades, it's been sparking outrage. Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, in whose South Texas district Baltazar lives, has introduced the bill called the Repatriate Our Patriots Act. It would prohibit the deportation of any honorably discharged veteran unless they're convicted of homicide, rape, terrorism or child sex crimes.
VICENTE GONZALEZ JR: And I think they should be punished for the crime that they commit. If they've got to go to jail, they've got to go to jail. If they're on probation, they're on probation. But we can't punish them twice, and we can't punish them permanently.
BURNETT: Gonzalez cited the case of Carlos Jaime Torres, a Vietnam vet who was convicted of marijuana dealing and deported in 2010. In December, he died in Reynosa, Mexico, where he'd been living in a cheap apartment.
GONZALEZ: Then he passed away and came back in a casket and had a full military service burial. And I just find that very hypocritical of our government.
BURNETT: The extensive veterans community in the Rio Grande Valley stands behind Edgar Baltazar.
FELIX RODRIGUEZ: He should be tried and adjudicated by the criminal justice system that he fought to maintain and not be deported.
BURNETT: Felix Rodriguez, a former Army intelligence specialist in Vietnam, attended Baltazar's hearing, he says, in solidarity with a brother-in-arms. The VA clinic in the Rio Grande Valley diagnosed Baltazar with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Studies indicate that service members and veterans who show PTSD symptoms are at a greater risk of what's called intimate partner violence. Felix Rodriguez says he sees it every week as an officer with the veterans court that was overseeing Baltazar's case.
RODRIGUEZ: Definitely there's a correlation, a relationship, between PTSD and risky behavior that lands them in our veterans treatment court.
BURNETT: As for the bill in Congress to stop deportations of veterans, its passage is a long shot. The sponsor says, in this climate, anything seen as an immigration bill has a rough road. But the congressman stresses this isn't an immigration bill - it's a veterans' rights bill. Edgar Baltazar's final hearing is at the end of this month. The judge will decide either to deport him or let him stay in the U.S.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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