California considers a legal lifeline for deported veterans


Lawmakers in California may soon throw a legal lifeline to military veterans who have been removed from the U.S. under federal immigration law.

The state Assembly on Monday unanimously approved a bill that would grant legal representation for those who were deported after being honorably discharged from military service. The measure, Assembly Bill 386, authorizes the state to contract with non-profit legal organizations to assist deported veterans who are seeking reentry into the U.S. with available public funds in the state budget. It would also establish a Veteran Reentry Assistance Fund to accept private donations for the program.

"These men and women have fought for our country, only to be tossed aside by the very government they served," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

Estimates by the U.S. military show that there are roughly 35,000 non-citizens serving in active duty, and that 8,000 enlist each year. But these foreign-born men and women are not granted automatic citizenship and can face orders of removal from the federal government over criminal offenses as minor as marijuana possession.

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A report by the ACLU last year found that at least 250 veterans have been deported to 34 countries in recent years, though the number is likely higher. One of them, Hector Barajas, now runs a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, for fellow U.S. veterans expelled from the country, which Vocativ profiled in March.

"A lot of them left their whole family in the U.S. like me," said Barajas, who served six years in the Army and was honorably discharged, in a recent interview. "My 11-year-old daughter, my parents, sisters and nieces all live in the States."

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In April, California Governor Jerry Brown took the unprecedented step to pardon Barajas and two other veterans who had lived or served in the state and were later honorably discharged. The pardons could help provide a pathway for the men to return to the U.S., an effort that the legal lifeline bill before the state legislature could further.

California lawmakers this year have taken up a handful of other high-profile measures aimed at assisting the state's large foreign-born population, which some believe could be threatened by the Trump administration's hardline approach toward immigration. Among them are bills to establish a public fund to provide free legal services for any immigrant facing deportation; create new statewide resources to train public defenders on immigration law; and a "sanctuary state" measure that would limit how local law enforcement works with federal immigration officials.

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