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Non-Citizen US War Vets Facing Deportation Despite Military Promises of Citizenship

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We take a look at the threat of deportation that non-citizen veterans of American wars continue to face despite US military promises of citizenship. We talk to Rohan Coombs, a Jamaican-born US vet who was in the US Marine Corps for six years and served in the Persian Gulf War. He spent eight months in prison for a marijuana-related conviction. The day he was to be released he was told he would be deported. He speaks to us from an immigration jail. We also speak with immigration attorney Craig Shagin. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a look at the threat of deportation that non-citizen vets of American wars continue to face despite US military promises of citizenship.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Honduran-born Vietnam War vet named Jose Padilla, requiring attorneys to advise immigrants of the deportation risks of pleading guilty to a crime. Padilla said he entered a guilty plea in 2002 to drug trafficking charges on the basis of incorrect legal advise that he would not be deported because he had already been in the US for forty years as a legal permanent resident. But the conviction for drug trafficking made his deportation mandatory. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor last Wednesday, noting, quote, “It is our responsibility under the Constitution to ensure that no criminal defendant — whether a citizen or not — is left to the ‘mercies of incompetent counsel.’”

Well, Jose Padilla is not a unique case. An estimated two to three thousand non-citizen vets of US wars face deportation. On Thursday, Juan Gonzalez and I spoke to a Jamaican-born US vet who was in the US Marine Corps for six years. He served in the Persian Gulf War. Rohan Coombs spent eight months in prison for a marijuana-related conviction but now faces deportation to Jamaica. We reached Rohan in the El Centro detention facility in San Diego, California last week and asked him how he ended up in ICE detention.

    ROHAN COOMBS: I was arrested for a crime, and I served some time in prison. And right after my prison sentence was completed, they brought me here on deportation proceedings.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And you were arrested and charged with what crime?

    ROHAN COOMBS: Possession of marijuana for sale.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And this happened where?

    ROHAN COOMBS: And this happened in Orange County, California. When I was sentenced, no one — I had — didn’t have any money to afford a lawyer, so they gave me a public defender, which was supposed to help me with my case. After about three months in jail, he came to me and told me that the district attorney made a deal with him that if I sign a plea agreement, that I would only serve eight months in jail, and then I would be released after that. Once my sentence was completed, the immigration department, Department of Homeland Security, came and picked me up, without my knowledge, knowing about anything that was happening. Then they told me that I was being deported because of the crime that I committed.


    ROHAN COOMBS: No one ever -—

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you were originally — you were raised in the United States, and you served in the military, as well? Could you talk about your experience in the military?

    ROHAN COOMBS: Yes, I was — I came to the United States when I was thirteen years old, and I grew up mostly in New York before I was twenty years old. When I became twenty, I joined the military, and I spent six years as a US Marine. And then I got out of the service after the first Persian Gulf War. I was in the service from 1987 ‘til 1993.

    AMY GOODMAN: When you were — decided to plead guilty, what kind of advice did you have? Were you informed of your status, your immigration status, and what a guilty plea could mean?

    ROHAN COOMBS: I was never informed about my immigration status. When the public defender came to me, and he said, “Well, we can do two things. We could go to trial, and if you lose your case, you could spend up to six years in jail. Or you could sign this plea agreement for a term of sixteen months, and you’re only going to serve half the amount of time, so you’re only going to do eight months in jail, and then you’ll be released.” Nothing was ever mentioned to me about being deported or I’m not a citizen, because all this time, because I was in the military, I assumed I was a citizen. And no one ever — that was never brought up at any particular time. Even when the judge sentenced me to prison, he didn’t even mention that I would be deported.

    AMY GOODMAN: That’s interesting, because in the Supreme Court case of Padilla v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that attorneys must advise immigrants of the deportation consequences of guilty pleas to criminal charges. Failure to do so constitutes providing ineffective assistance of counsel and can serve as grounds for setting aside a criminal conviction.

    ROHAN COOMBS: Yes, I just learned about that, as well. And right now, I’m trying to see how I can, you know, get some help, so that some — you know, so I could get my case in front of the Supreme Court so, you know, I can state my case. And right now I have a veterans group. It’s called Banished Veterans. And they have been helping me out a little bit on my case and trying to get some support for me.

    It would be good — you know, there’s a lot of veterans and a lot of immigrants out there that’s not informed about the laws of this country. And it’s really sad, because 95 percent of any person that comes in front of an immigration judge gets deported, with no help. And 90 percent —-

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, that court decision was just yesterday that came out. I wanted to ask you also, in terms of -— when you said that you assumed that you were a citizen, why was that that you assumed it?

    ROHAN COOMBS: Because when I first joined the military, that was part of, you know, what the recruiter told me when I joined the military. He said, “You know, once you join the military, you know, you become a citizen, you know, And the only thing you have to do is fill out the application for citizenship.” And I did that in 1988. I filed — they’ll file the application for citizenship while I was on active military duty in 1988. They show — the government Department of Homeland Security show in their files that in November 1988, they received the application for citizenship from me. But according to the military liaison, they never got a copy of that application.

    AMY GOODMAN: What made you first aware that you were not a citizen?

    ROHAN COOMBS: When they came and picked me up. When my final day of sentence, and I thought I was going to be released, then the Department of Homeland Security — they said they were going to turn me over to the Department of Homeland Security. And at that point, that’s when my citizenship came into question. Before that, there was — no one ever said anything about my citizenship.

    AMY GOODMAN: And Rohan Coombs, what about the effect of your service in the Persian Gulf War? Talk about going from that to being arrested for marijuana.

    ROHAN COOMBS: It’s just — you know, a lot of people, you know, think war is an easy thing, you know? And when you go to war, you know, and when you return from war, no one ever want to talk to you about what happened and no kind of psychological, you know, treatment or anything. You know, they assume that you’re normal. And, you know, for many years after the war, you’ve got to cope with things that happen in your mind, you know, not just the psychological things that happen, you know, but your friends that died, people that you knew when you was in service and they died. And, you know, it’s just never been talked about. And so you have to cope — you know, you have to find ways to cope with things. And unfortunately, you know, I didn’t go in the direction that everyone wants me to go to. You know, I find other ways to try and cope with my situation. And unfortunately, marijuana was the thing, because it gets my mind, you know, set so I don’t have to think about those things. You know, just kind of something to try to make you forget what happened.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did you get any treatment for PTSD, for post-traumatic stress disorder?

    ROHAN COOMBS: No, I was never treated for anything. You know, when I was released from the military, they all assumed that, you know, everything was fine and dandy. No one ever questioned anything about PTSD.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your wife died?

    ROHAN COOMBS: Yes, my wife died in 2001, you know, and ever since — you know, that also changed — you know, that’s also a life-changing situation, as well. And so that also added to, you know, the mental part of my life. And so, you know, people think it’s easy to cope with the death. And it’s not easy. You know, it’s just — it’s hard for me to explain what’s going on in my mind.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rohan Coombs, the possibility now of the government seeking to deport you to Jamaica, have you spent much time at all in Jamaica since you’ve been living in the United States? Do you have much connection to your homeland other than the fact that you were born and raised there for your early part of your life?

    ROHAN COOMBS: No, since I’ve been here in the United States, I’ve been here almost thirty years. And since I’ve been here, I’ve never been back to Jamaica. The only time I left this country was when I was in the military. That was the only time I left this country. Besides that, pretty much the rest of my life I’ve been here in this country.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why did you serve in the Persian Gulf War?

    ROHAN COOMBS: I served — I joined the military because I believe in this country. You know, when I came to this country, you know, this was my home. You know, this is where I was going to live. This is, you know, where I was going to spend the rest of my life. And I figure if this is my country, this is the country I’m going to defend. And when the Persian Gulf War happened, you know, I was in the military. I was ordered to go. I was willing to go. I was willing to give my life for this country, because I believe in the things that this country stands for.

    You know, when the Persian Gulf War happened, I was all for it, you know, because I thought that the Kuwaiti government, they needed our help. And we went, and we, you know, liberated their country, and we helped them get out the Iraqis out of their country and set their country back up. And I thought that at the time that was a good thing, you know, and I still believe that was a good thing, you know, because people was being oppressed and we were there to help. And now that I’m in this situation, it just seems, you know, ironic, because now that I need some help and support, you know, there is not a lot of help there for me.

    AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Rohan, there is something like two to three thousand people in your situation who served in the US military but who face deportation. Have you met anyone in the detention facility in your situation?

    ROHAN COOMBS: Yes, since I’ve been here, there’s been about twelve to thirteen people, since I’ve been here, that came, and they got deported, and they’re all shipped back to their country. And, you know, like I said, the sad thing about it is that when you go in front of these judges that are here — and, you know, my particular judge, you know, when I mentioned to him that I was a US veteran, you know, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “You know what? There’s many veterans that came in front of me. What makes you so special?” And, you know, that’s just — that just saddens me.

AMY GOODMAN: Rohan Coombs, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, speaking to us from an immigration detention center in San Diego. I’m joined right now from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania by his appellate lawyer, immigration attorney Craig Shagin. He has worked extensively on the deportation of non-citizen veterans and is filing an appeal on Rohan’s deportation order later today.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Just explain his situation right now and the grounds on which you’re appealing, Craig.

CRAIG SHAGIN: Well, there are several grounds that we’re appealing. Of course, in each individual deportation case, there are very technical grounds by which you may be able to help that particular alien gain the ability to remain in the United States. The broader question in his case and in the other cases that his situation brings to light — that is, those of veterans who are now being deported — is a question of loyalty. And it’s the loyalty that the United States owes to those who have put on the uniform and defended it.

There is something in American law known as a non-citizen national, and it’s our position that veterans — that is, anybody who serves in the United States military — from the moment they take the oath of allegiance, is in fact a non-citizen national. The reason for that is that when they go overseas in uniform, they are in fact treated under both American law, international law, and the law of war as American nationals. That is, they’re putting on the emblem and the insignia of the United States. When they’re sent overseas, they are subject to the Status of Forces Agreement as if they’re American nationals. If they’re captured in war, they will be treated as American nationals, not only by the other combatant country, but also by the United States, which, under the Army Code of Conduct, the very first provision is, I will always remember that I am an American.

And there’s nothing that strips them of this status when they return. And indeed, when they return, they don’t return as aliens; they return as Americans. They’re not inspected by INS when they return, or USCIS today. They are sent back to their military bases just like every other soldier.

So it really comes down to a question of whether the United States is going to remain loyal to these people and give them the protection that they deserve. When they go off to war, as Mr. Coombs pointed out, it’s a very serious, dangerous endeavor. They may lose their life. They may lose their limbs. But one thing they should never lose is their country.

AMY GOODMAN: And he says he was told by his recruiter he would become an American citizen if he fought for his country, for the United States.

CRAIG SHAGIN: That response is absolutely typical of all the other veterans I’ve represented, as well. They all believe that they were citizens. After all, they raise their hand, they swear an allegiance to the United States. And I’ve even heard from their commanding officers that they believed that they were, that they had no further obligation to do anything. And in fact, the Army has now taken, to its credit, very positive and affirmative stances to make sure this doesn’t happen. But for years and years and years, the commanding officers would have no idea that the people serving under them were not in fact citizens of the United States. They just assumed they were. And many of them —-

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

CRAIG SHAGIN: —- in fact believed that they were.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Shagin, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Rohan Coombs’ appellate attorney who has worked with a number of non-citizen veterans facing deportation.

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