Nonimmigrant Veterans Beware!

Thousands of non-citizens serve in the United States military each year, and serve with honor, many going on to become U.S. citizens. Some, however, mistakenly assume that their military service automatically confers American citizenship, an assumption that can cost them dearly if they get in trouble with the law. A recent Associated Press story provides a cautionary tale for non-citizens who have served in the U.S. military: don’t expect your veteran status to protect you from deportation, if you are convicted of a serious crime. (See Immigrant Vets Face Deportation Despite Service, by Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press, 24.Oct.2010.)

The Associated Press recounted the experiences of Rohan Coombs, a Jamaican who emigrated to the United States as a child, and served for six years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including combat service in the Persian Gulf War. According to the AP wire story, Mr. Coombs lost friends in combat, and struggled with depression and anxiety, eventually turning to drugs. His drug problem led to a court-martial and a dishonorable discharge from the Marines, after serving 18 months in confinement for possession of cocaine and marihuana, with intent to distribute, the AP reports.

Unfortunately, Mr. Coombs’s drug problems didn’t end there. According to the Associated Press, a subsequent drug offense landed Mr. Coombs in state prison for 8 months, after which U.S. immigration authorities determined that he could be deported, on the basis of his criminal record. AP reports that “Coombs was stunned to realize he could be forced to leave the country for his crimes. ‘This is the only life I’ve known,’ he said. ‘The only time I left the country was when I was deployed overseas. This is my home.'”

The Associated Press told of another immigrant facing a similar fate: Dardar Paye, who fled his native Liberia as a child, during the long-running Liberian civil war, and later served in the U.S. Army in Kuwait and Kosovo. Paye’s 2008 conviction on six weapons-related charges – including firearms dealing – now have him awaiting deportation to Liberia. As the AP story notes, neither Coombs nor Paye ever took the additional steps necessary to secure citizenship here – probably assuming that service in the U.S. military was sufficient to prevent any future worries about their immigration status.

A 1996 law expanded the list of crimes for which legal immigrants could be deported – or “removed,” in current parlance – before then, AP says, very few non-citizen veterans were deported, “because immigration authorities could take their service into consideration.” The article quotes immigration attorney and retired Army reservist, Margaret Stock, explaining that “Drugs, anger management, weapons charges, that’s what a lot of vets are getting caught for, and there is no relief. The 1996 law really put the nails in their coffin.”

The moral of the story should be obvious, but apparently isn’t obvious enough: always, always stay on the right side of the law – especially if you are not a U.S. citizen. If you plan to remain here and you aren’t a citizen, but you do qualify to become one, it is well worth considering – and the sooner, the better. It likewise is worth securing citizenship for your spouse and children, not only so they can travel more freely to and from the United States, and register to vote in state and local elections from age 18 on; as we pointed out in our MurthyDotCom article on the many benefits of U.S. citizenship, it can protect them from removal if they ever get into trouble with the law. (See: Benefits of Becoming a U.S. Citizen, MurthyDotCom, updated 22.Oct.2010.)

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.