SAN ANTONIO – Never leave another behind is a mantra followed by members of the U.S. military. But undocumented veterans who spoke to KSAT say they are being left behind by the country they served and fought for.
The Department of Defense estimates that about 5,000 green card holders, or legal permanent residents who are not yet citizens, enlist in the military every year. But the path for citizenship hasn’t come easy — or at all — for active members and veterans.
In fact, from 2013 to 2018, federal immigration agents did not adhere to a policy requiring a review of a person’s military service record before deporting an undocumented veteran, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Further, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents did not keep track of how many undocumented veterans they have detained and deported, the accountability office found.
Some undocumented veterans were forcibly sent back to their birth country — even though they may have spent the majority of their lives in the United States — after they were convicted of criminal offenses. But some lawmakers say that these men and women who served the country still deserve to get permanent U.S. residency or citizenship following their criminal sentence. Some bipartisan bills have been filed in Congress but none have made it to a vote.
KSAT 12 interviewed three veterans who have been directly affected by this policy and practice. They are speaking out in hopes of one day becoming U.S. citizens for the country they love but feel betrayed by.
Jose Alaniz - Deported Marine
Jose Alaniz was six years old when he was brought to the United States by his parents in 1972 and he’s lived here ever since. After graduating high school in El Paso, Alaniz joined the Marines.
In the late 1980s, Alaniz served in the Marines for four years and as a reserve for the next four, he said.
As Alaniz was working his way through the immigration process, he was convicted for a DUI in another state and was told he would have to start the process over again if he wanted to become a citizen. Because of a lack of funds and needing to support his family, Alaniz said he never reapplied.
“I tried to get help from the V.A., from the Department of Defense, anybody that could help me pro bono because I didn’t have the money,” Alaniz told KSAT.
Alaniz moved to Houston but never closed his DUI case. At some point his green card expired, leaving his immigration status in limbo.
In 2008, Hurricane Ike left his home with thousands of dollars worth of damage. He sought assistance from an attorney to secure assistance to fix his home for his wife and five kids.
The attorney told Alaniz before he could receive federal aid he would need to reapply for citizenship or as a legal permanent resident, and to do that he would need to resolve the DUI case. Alaniz said the attorney advised him to plead guilty to the DUI and he would face probation.
“I was willing to fight (to prove) my innocence but the lawyer told me to plead guilty because it was going to cost thousands of dollars,” Alaniz said. “Not once did he mention that there’s a possibility of deportation.”
Soon, Alaniz realized the criminal case against him would turn into more than a fine. In 2013, Alaniz was deported to Mexico. He’s lived in Monterrey, where he has no family, for the last seven years.
“I get depressed,” Alaniz said. “I lost my wife, my kids call me every now and again, I haven’t seen them.”
People who are deported are not eligible for travel or other visas generally for at least 10 years, but sometimes the ban is for a lifetime.
At this point, with no pending litigation in his favor, the only way that Alaniz could legally come back to the country is in death, as veterans are awarded a full military service for their funeral.
Despite all that, Alaniz says he has no regrets about joining the military because it provided him many opportunities he would have not otherwise had.
“I’d do it all over again.”
Kevin - Army veteran in hiding from immigration agents
Editor’s note: Kevin is a pseudonym assigned to protect the real identity of this person because he is currently living in the United States without legal status and facing deportation.
Kevin from Costa Rica has known the United States as his home for the majority of his life.
In 2001, he was living in New York City, going to college and playing semi-pro soccer when 9/11 changed his life.
After that, inspired by his brother who was already in the military, Kevin was one of the thousands of non-citizens to volunteer and enlist into the Army.
While in the military, he was arrested and said he plead guilty to avoid jail time. Then he went on to serve a tour in Afghanistan. When he returned, he was honorably discharged and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detained him for several weeks.
“I’m not making up any excuse, what I did was wrong and I take full responsibility for that,” Kevin said. “We volunteered to give our lives, it’s not fair that we come home and this is how they treat us.”
He was later released but told he would have to fight his immigration case and that deportation would be next.
With no financial means to get legal help, Kevin is now on the run from ICE agents, who have made several attempts to locate him so he could be deported.
Every day Kevin risks being caught and worries about what will happen to his family as he is the only source of income for his wife and children.
“I completely feel betrayed by my government,” Kevin said. “All I’m asking is just to let me be with my family, I already paid for what I did.”
Just like Alaniz, he has no regrets and is proud of his U.S. military career.
“Honestly I wish I never got out,” Kevin said. “I miss it every day.”
Marcelino Ramos - Deported Marine
A San Antonio veteran, Marcelino Ramos is fighting to return home to his family.
A felony conviction for injury to a child in 2009, which he disputes and fought in court, landed him on ICE’s radar and he was eventually deported to Mexico. He came back to the United States without legal status to be with his family. His child was born right before he was deported again in 2016 for illegal re-entry.
He is now trying to raise awareness on the plight he and other deported veterans are facing.
Ramos was picked up outside the mechanic shop he worked at in March 2016 and has been living in Nuevo Laredo since then.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Ramos said.
His ex-wife and five-year-old daughter here in San Antonio try to keep in touch with him as often as possible.
“It’s been very stressful and she misses her daddy so much,” Frances Ramos said.
Frances Ramos has been trying to help as much as she can with legal efforts but after several failed attempts to get help from lawyers and politicians, the family is running out of hope.
“How is it fair for somebody that has served to not be able to enjoy the freedoms that he fought to protect," Frances Ramos said.
“It’s very difficult to take it all in even trying to live because I’m not there to provide for my family, but well I have to keep trying," Marcelino Ramos said.
The deported veterans mentioned above are just a few of the more than 2,000 living abroad hoping to one day return to the country they served. That figure just an estimate because there isn’t a policy to identify military veterans during deportation proceedings.