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Banished: US Deports Hundreds of Military VeteransCindy Carcamo OC Register
First they served, now they are forced to flee.
(ROSARITO, Baja California) - Keeping tabs on his U.S. citizenship application wasn't much of a priority for Marine Cpl. Rohan Coombs when he served in the Persian Gulf War.
The aircraft maintenance specialist had more pressing concerns: the safety of his comrades as bombs rained down and people died around him in the desert.
Coombs, who came to the U.S. legally from Jamaica as a child and enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 20, served six years in the military. Eventually, he settled in Tustin and figured he was a U.S. citizen because he'd gone to war for his country.
He was wrong. Like hundreds of other men and women who served in the U.S. military, Coombs faces deportation and banishment from the country he went to war for after being arrested. In his case, he was arrested several times on charges of possession for use or sale of marijuana.
Just south of the U.S.-Mexico border in Rosarito, a contingent of about a dozen veterans who call themselves the "Banished Veterans" are lobbying to change an immigration act that allows legal residents who commit certain crimes to be deported, despite his or her military service. The group has launched a website, Facebook page and created a network of advocates and attorneys who provide legal and emotional support to U.S. veterans who face deportation.
"What is happening in these cases is so unjust, so unfair and so outrageous," said Craig R. Shagin, an immigration lawyer in Pennsylvania who represents deported U.S. veterans. "It's not about being nice to a guy. It's about realizing that because of what he did, he is an American. ... He wore the uniform."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they don't take the decision to deport a veteran lightly. Deportable offenses can range from murder or domestic violence to cashing a wrong check or drug possession.
If a veteran is to be removed, it has to be authorized by the senior leadership, ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.
"ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate," she stated.
More than 70,000 noncitizens enlisted in the U.S. military – about 4 percent of the armed forces – from fiscal year 1999 to 2008, according to the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. Those who are in the country illegally are not allowed to join.
Less than half of the legal residents who joined the military during the same period had become U.S. citizens as of June 2010, the center said. Estimates for the number of deported veterans range from the hundreds to the thousands. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they don't keep track of that statistic, but will in the near future.
Coombs is in his third year of immigration detention in El Centro, fighting deportation to Jamaica after his 2008 arrest and conviction on possession for sale of marijuana.
He said he first started using pot just to help him with anxiety after he returned from war. Later, he said, he also started to sell some of the drug to his friends who knew he could get it.
"Nobody told me I could be in this situation," the 45-year-old said about his deportation fight. "The whole time I thought I was a citizen."
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