Poor data on those living here or overseas means many are denied benefits, GAO found.
Though their numbers have fallen, a surprising portion of U.S. military veterans are non-citizens who might become subject to deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But the agency housed within the Homeland Security Department charged with determining their fate “does not consistently adhere to its policies of handling potentially removable veterans and does not consistently identify and track” them, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Thursday.
Poor data puts at risk both these veterans’ rights to due process from ICE as well as the Veterans Affairs Department’s efforts to deliver earned benefits to those noncitizen vets now living abroad.
From fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2018, more than 44,000 noncitizens enlisted in the military, according to the Defense Department, but that number declined by 72% in the past two years.
The report delivered to Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., noted that policies adopted in 2003-2004 “established that these noncitizen veterans warrant special consideration in the event that they become subject to immigration enforcement and removal from the United States.” These policies require the special agents who come across a noncitizen veteran without proper documentation to “conduct additional assessments, create additional documentation, and obtain management approval in order to proceed” with deportation.
But “because ICE did not consistently adhere to 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,” the auditors concluded. Incomplete electronic data meant that “ICE has no way of knowing whether it has identified all of the veterans it has encountered and, therefore, does not have reasonable assurance that it is consistently implementing its policies and procedures for handling veterans’ cases.”
To deport a veteran, ICE special agents and field offices “must consider, at a minimum, the veteran’s overall criminal history, evidence of rehabilitation, family and financial ties to the United States, employment history, health and community service,” as well as the veterans' duties while in the service, GAO noted.
In a related problem, the report noted that veterans who have moved or been sent to other countries face challenges in collecting VA benefits. They may not receive the standard medical exams or have difficulty navigating the VA’s online registration system, the report said. “Unreliable foreign mail systems and differences in time zones make it challenging for veterans to communicate with the VA, particularly because VA uses paper mail to communicate with veterans living abroad,” GAO said. To be eligible for benefits, an overseas vet applying online must verify his or her status with Defense using proper identification.
“Consistent implementation of its policies would help ICE better ensure that veterans receive appropriate levels of review before they are placed in removal proceedings,” GAO said.
The report also evaluated cooperation from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the larger context of how federal agencies facilitate the naturalization of noncitizen service members and veterans. “The number of military naturalization applications received by USCIS declined sharply from fiscal years 2017 to 2018, resulting in a decreased number of applications approved in fiscal year 2018,” the report said. USCIS and Defense officials attributed this decline to several Defense Department policy changes during the Trump administration.
GAO recommended that ICE ensure consistent implementation of its existing policies for handling veterans’ cases; develop a policy or revise its current policies to identify and document veterans; and collect and maintain complete data on veterans in removal proceedings or who have been removed.
Homeland Security Department managers agreed.