Troops' immigrant kin face deportation
By Juliana Barbassa
By Juliana Barbassa
Yaderlin Jimenez was an illegal immigrant facing deportation. Her husband, a U.S. citizen and soldier, couldn't help her because he was missing after an insurgent attack in Iraq.
The military has not been able to find Army Spc. Alex Jimenez, of Lawrence, Mass., after he was apparently snatched in May during a raid on his unit south of Baghdad. His capture drew national attention to his wife's deportation case, prompting Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to ask immigration officials to halt the proceedings.
Jimenez's wife then became a legal resident, but the couple's plight put a public face on the private anguish of a growing number of military personnel: that their family members might be deported while they are away.
"Every base has immigration problems," said Margaret Stock, an Army reservist and immigration attorney teaching at United States Military Academy at West Point. "The government they're fighting for is the same government that's trying to deport their families."
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Eduardo Gonzalez is a citizen whose wife entered the country illegally from Guatemala when she was 5 years old. Now a young adult, she is in deportation proceedings.
"If I'm willing to die for the United States, why can't I just be allowed to be with my family?" Gonzalez asked.
Supporters of tighter immigration controls say giving the relatives of service members a free pass would only create an incentive for immigrants to enlist to legalize undocumented family members. They also oppose narrow solutions addressed at individual cases like that of Yaderlin Jimenez.
The Pentagon has long recognized that military life can be a strain on service members' families, and that ensuring their well-being is a crucial part of maintaining troop morale. But troops' families do not enjoy any special treatment when it comes to immigration infractions, Stock said.
"We give relief to soldiers from everything else — from oppressive loans, from a landlord that's trying to evict them while they're deployed," Stock said. "Someone at the top needs to decide which is most important — to keep soldiers' families together, because we know it's important for morale, or break them up in the interest of enforcing immigration law."
The federal government encourages immigrants to enlist by streamlining their citizenship applications, eliminating fees and making it easier for them to file paperwork while serving abroad. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also has postponed deportation of immigrants on active duty until they are discharged.
As the number of immigrants serving in the military grows, so do the chances of military families getting caught in an immigration bind.
The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment on the treatment of service members' undocumented family members. Department of Homeland Security officials said all immigration cases are dealt with individually.
Gonzalez left in July for his third deployment to the Persian Gulf, where he manages a team of helicopter mechanics on an aircraft carrier. He hopes to return in time for his wife's deportation hearing in June.
"The only way I can go and do my job well is to know my wife and son are safe here and doing well," he said.
At an immigration hearing in June, Mildred Gonzalez was given 60 days to leave the country voluntarily. After learning her husband was about to redeploy, the judge, an ex-military man, granted her a one-year extension.
Sometimes reaching out to the military for help can backfire.
Before deploying to Iraq last September, Army Spc. Angel Rodriguez sought help from the legal office at Fort Polk, La., for his wife, Haydee, who had entered the country legally as a 13-year-old tourist from Honduras but overstayed her visa.
Haydee Rodriguez was afraid she would be deported while her husband was overseas, which would leave her 2-year-old son in limbo. She decided to move to California to be near her husband's family.
His mother, his mother's boyfriend and Angel Rodriguez's brother drove to Louisiana to pick her up. As visitors to the base, they were asked for identification.
His brother and the mother's boyfriend were both detained. His brother, who is here legally, eventually produced valid identification and was released. But his mother's boyfriend, an illegal immigrant, was deported to Mexico.
"I joined the Army and I take pride in what I do," Angel Rodriguez said. "But it's hard being away and defending a country that doesn't want your family."
Base officials said they were required by law to alert immigration authorities.
Because Haydee Rodriguez did not enter without authorization, she can still be legalized. She's was scheduled to meet this month with immigration officials who would quiz her on the validity of her marriage, among other issues. If convinced, Rodriguez could become a legal resident.
"I'm really nervous," she said earlier this month. "I'd feel so much safer if he (Angel) were here with me."