OPINION: Earned right: Honorably discharged veterans have earned a path to citizenship

There are no degrees of citizenship, but if there were, who deserves most to be called an American — a person who by sheer providence was born within our borders, were fortunate to never be called to serve in our armed forces or whose parents pulled strings to help them avoid conscription, or people who came here as children and answered the call and even volunteered to serve their country and leaving their time, blood and sometimes even part of their sanity defending our people and interests on the field of battle?

Given our nation’s legislative history and the clear opinions of half of our Congress members — many who themselves finagled their way out of military service — the answer clearly is the former. Under current law, many honorably discharged veterans have been deported.

U.S. Reps Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Don Young, R-Alaska, want to fix this. They have filed the Repatriate Our Patriots Act, to provide a path to citizenship for honorably discharged veterans and help those already deported return to begin the process.

Many people, however, strongly believe that people who have been willing to lay down their lives for our country have earned the right to call this their country too.

They include Jose M. Martinez, a Marine who grew up in Brownsville and fought in Vietnam; Alfredo Garcia of Donna, who fought with the Army in Korea and Vietnam; Edgar Garcia of Harlingen, a Marine who served in the Iraq War; Raul Rodriguez of Mission, a Navy vet who later served with Customs and Border Patrol, the very agency that later deported him.

This is the third time Gonzalez and Young have filed the bill, and others before them have tried. Despite strong support from civil rights and veterans’ groups and many Americans, previous efforts have failed.

Most of the deported veterans, like the younger Dreamers affected by DACA, know no other home. Their removal leaves behind spouses and families, all American; careers and even successful businesses; and neighborhoods that had benefited from their contributions.

The numbers are larger than many might think. The General Accountability Office reports that 92 U.S. veterans were deported between 2013 and 2018, but rights groups, news reporters covering the issue and even members of Congress insist that the actual numbers are in the thousands.

One of those groups is the American Legion, which reports that nearly 24,000 non-citizen immigrants currently serve in the various U.S. military forces, from roughly 40 different countries.

Despite the strong support for the bill, one factor that undermines the bill is the fact that many veterans were deported based on criminal arrests, mostly often for possession of small amounts of drugs the veterans said they too to deal with service-related medical issues. With recent changes in law, many of the actions that led to the deportations are no longer illegal. Some Congress members don’t want to do anything that opponents might call soft on crime.

Honorably discharged veterans aren’t asking for automatic citizenship. But a person who has accepted the risk, sacrifice and forced discipline that comes with military service deserves what every American demands — a fair shake.

They’ve earned at least that much. We hope the current majorities in the chambers of Congress agree.