After manning a machine gun on a combat helicopter as a U.S. Marine during the liberation of Kuwait, Antonio Romo came back to the United States traumatized by the death and carnage he saw.
He says he turned to alcohol and narcotics to try to quiet the nightmares, and made multiple suicide attempts. With addiction, he fell into dealing, and was arrested for selling cocaine. And after getting out of prison, Romo was deported in 2008 to Mexico, from where he had migrated to Lynwood, California, illegally at age 12.
Today he’s part of a group of dozens of U.S. military veterans, most of them former legal residents but noncitizens, who were deported after criminal convictions and who for years have tried to convince multiple administrations to let them return. They acknowledge committing serious crimes such as felony drug dealing, but argue that they did their time and being kicked out of the country amounts to being punished twice.
Now these veterans are pinning their hopes on the new administration of Donald Trump, and their cause presents a sharp conflict for two of the new president’s stated priorities: Trump has promised to support the military and veterans; at the same time, he has also moved to ramp up deportations of immigrants in the United States illegally — particularly those convicted of crimes.
“President Donald Trump has said that he supports veterans, but …” the 48-year-old Romo said, his voice trailing off. “We are Mexicans. … I don’t know.”
Either congressional legislation or a presidential executive order could open the door for Romo and the others.
A White House official declined a request for an official administration comment on the issue. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “The current policy is reflective of those that have transcended administrations from both parties. I do not have any information regarding any changes to that.”
In September, then-candidate Trump suggested he would be open to letting immigrants who serve stay in the U.S. even if they came illegally.
“I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a special situation, and I could see myself working that out,” Trump said at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum. “Absolutely.”
The United States has recruited foreign-born soldiers since the mid-19th century, and between 1999 and 2008, more than 70,000 of them enlisted, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Service has provided an expedited path to citizenship, with more than 109,000 veterans becoming naturalized Americans between 2001 and 2015, according to U.S. government statistics.
But that doesn’t happen automatically; it’s up to the veterans to follow through on the process. Some, like Romo — who was awarded a medal for the liberation of Kuwait, according to a copy of his discharge order he provided to The Associated Press — fall through the cracks. And those who commit felonies, which psychologists say are often linked to post-traumatic stress from battle, risk being kicked out of the country.
In 1996, U.S. immigration law was toughened to include around 30 deportable offenses for such cases, including robbery or…