Even though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency has policies in place that can protect immigrant U.S. veterans from deportation, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned that ICE officials have not regularly followed their own rules and failed to keep adequate records on veterans who are not citizens.
A report by congressional investigators states: "When ICE agents and officers learn they have encountered a potentially removable veteran, ICE policies require them to take additional steps to proceed with the case." But when the Government Accountability Office reviewed five years of ICE records, it reported that "GAO found that ICE did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans."
Those rules are in place to give immigrant military service veterans extra consideration when they are arrested for a crime. According to the GAO, ICE agents are required to refer the case to their supervisors, who must then evaluate the veteran’s overall criminal history, evidence of rehabilitation, family and financial ties to the United States, employment history, health and community service.
ICE officers must also take into account the vet’s years in the service, assignment to a war zone and decorations awarded. According to ICE policies, all of these must be weighed. And in each case, a memo must be sent to ICE headquarters for review and approval. In its report to Congress released in June 2019, the GAO found that ICE failed to elevate cases to headquarters 70% of the time.
Lance Cpl. Enrique Salas was deported in 2006. Salas was a highly decorated U.S. Marine. Military records show he served in the Persian Gulf War, where he earned commendations as a Rifle Marksman, a Sea Service Ribbon. He earned a National Defense Service Medal, only given to military members who serve during a national emergency. He was also awarded a medal for good conduct. Salas told NBC Bay Area that his military career was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He had come to the U.S. from Mexico with his parents when he was 6 years old.
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"From the time I was 10, that was the only thing I dreamt about, was being a Marine," Salas said in an interview with NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit that took place as he lived in exile in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2017. Salas was still clinging to his military pride even though, at the time, he was sharing a room in a tiny cinder block house on an unpaved, muddy street in a Tijuana barrio.
"Putting on that uniform is the greatest thing in the world. That pride and honor you get – I get goosebumps when I hear the anthem," he said.
Salas joined the Marines one week after finishing high school. After being honorably discharged in 1992 and serving as a Marine reservist until 1996, Salas began to struggle with drugs. He told NBC Bay Area that his battle with drugs began during the Gulf War.
In 2001, Salas was arrested for drug possession in San Diego. He was sentenced to time served: six months. He returned to work, determined not to make the same mistake again. Then, while on a trip to Tijuana, his wallet was stolen. Salas told U.S. Customs officials at the border what had happened. As his daughter, then 13, watched in shock, border officials cuffed Salas and detained him.
"The Border Patrol was … he kind of looked at my dad as a criminal," said Stephanie Rabara. "And I just remember him telling him 'You’re not supposed to be here.' My Dad was like, 'What do you mean? What’s going on? I did my time, just trying to get my card back.' That’s when they arrested my dad.
"I had school that day, and I had to go to school, and my life completely changed from then on," Rabara continued. "My dad was the only parent I had. And he was taken from me. So I had to find a way to keep living in San Diego without him.”
Under a policy dating back to Bill Clinton’s presidency that expanded the list of crimes that can trigger a deportation, Salas’s drug conviction made him "removable." Hundreds of noncitizen veterans have been deported for committing what are called "aggravated felonies," a list of crimes that was expanded during the Clinton administration to include drug possession, re-entering the country illegally and failure to appear in court.
"If you've been convicted of certain offenses it's a deportable act," said Sharon Rummery, an Department of Homeland Security spokesperson with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration branch, during a 2017 interview with NBC Bay Area. When asked if that was fair in the case of a U.S. military veteran, Rummery said, "We don’t ask ourselves what's fair or not fair. We're simply here to administer the law. That's what we're charged with. That's what we do."
But the GAO report said, "ICE does not consistently adhere to its policies for handling cases of potentially removable veterans and does not consistently identify and track such veterans."
The GAO report continues: "Because ICE did not consistently follow these policies, some veterans who were removed may not have received the level of review and approval that ICE has determined is appropriate for cases involving veterans."
And "ICE has not developed a policy to identify and document all military veterans it encounters."
"If anybody deserves closer scrutiny in a deportation proceeding it’s somebody who’s been a member of our armed forces," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, who represents Riverside County and chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Takano requested the Government Accountability Report on ICE policies.
"They're supposed to be keeping a count and finding out who is a veteran, who wore the uniform of our country before they deport him," Takano said. "They don't keep statistics. And they don't follow their own internal policies."
Salas’ record may have been sufficient to reconsider his deportation order. He had two drug arrests. He had committed himself to quitting his drug habit. He had daughters, siblings and parents in California. He was working and in good health. He had served in a war zone and been awarded numerous honors as a Marine.
After his deportation, Salas had made his way back to the U.S. to work and be close to his daughter and the rest of his family. But he was apprehended once again by ICE officials and told he was barred permanently from the U.S.
NBC Bay Area first met Salas outside his home in Tijuana, as he was kissing his daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in months. "When we go to Mexico to see him we never want to leave him, and obviously it always feels like we’re abandoning him," Rabara said.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit discovered that, like Salas, more than 300 service veterans who had put their lives on the line in service to the United States have been deported to as many as 34 different countries.
"I think there is definitely room for improvement (in the ICE process)," said David Jennings, the Field Office Director for Ice Enforcement Removal Operations in Northern California.
But Jennings' take on the GAO Report was more procedural. He said the GAO merely found lack of documents and electronic data. "Nowhere in their report did they say that we removed anybody we shouldn't or anything like that," he said. Jennings explained that since there are different branches of ICE, some divisions encounter immigrant vets less frequently, and agents in those branches may not have a good working knowledge of the policies.
But without data for tracking these types of cases, it’s difficult to identify specific veterans who were erroneously deported.
"We definitely need to come up with a better way electronically to do it," said Jennings. "Right now, we don't have the capability in the system we have to do that. But since they (the GAO) recommended (better electronic tracking) and we accept the recommendations, I'm sure it's coming down the road that we'll figure out how to do that.”
"Enrique Salas’ case is sad. It’s tragic. And yes, it makes me angry," said Takano, who has introduced legislation to require the Department of Defense to track deported veterans. He says he’ll push to change immigration law – something he says both sides of the political aisle seem willing to do – to fix what he calls an "injustice."
But it’s too late for Rabara and her family.
"All these years that my dad was struggling and fighting, and you know trying to do things the correct way," she said.
Salas, who fought first in war as a U.S. Marine then against the U.S. bureaucracy, was critically injured in a car wreck last year while still living in exile in Tijuana.
"I feel like this could have been prevented. I feel like it's just, it's so wrong," said Rabara.
Salas died 13 days after that car accident in Mexico, less than a day after his three-months pregnant daughter finally convinced Veterans Affairs officials —after days of begging — to allow her suffering father back into the country he served in order to get more advanced medical treatment for his injuries.
"My dad put his life on the line for the United States, and that was the only way that he was allowed to come back," said Rabara.
So now, Salas is finally back home. U.S. policy allowed him to return after he died. He is buried in a military cemetery not far from where his parents still live, in Reedley, California, southeast of Fresno. He never met his grandson, Rabara’s boy, whom she named August Enrique after her dad.
"I think even to this day, I’m still in shock," said Rabara.
"It should make every American angry that the only way back into this country for Enrique Salas was in a military coffin," said Takano.
Rabara said she’s glad the GAO report takes ICE to task and that Congress finally seems to be paying attention to an issue she says has been ignored too long.
"It's a little bittersweet, because my initial reaction is anger, because my dad’s not here," Rabara said. "I'm glad that things are coming up for the other deported veterans, because they don’t deserve to live in the conditions that they’re living in. I just don’t want my dad’s (life), like everything that he did and his life to be in vain, you know."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Sharon Rummery as an ICE spokesperson. Ms. Rummery works for United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, which is one of three divisions that are part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is one of those branches, along with Customs and Border Patrol.