President Biden has the opportunity to right a grievous wrong. Black people who served this country in the U.S. armed forces are being deported - now is the time for the president to bring them home.
You did not misread this. And the story you are about to read is as outrageous as it sounds. As we hear the news about thousands of people - including many Black people - cast aside and sent away for their undocumented or non-citizen status, few of us realize that some of them served in the armed forces.
Since 1997, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act has allowed for automatic deportation because of a criminal conviction, no matter how minor the infraction. Some crimes are related to PTSD or substance abuse, which puts vets at a greater risk of being imprisoned.
How many vets have been deported over the years is unclear because the government didn’t screen vets before deporting them. During the last administration, Trump blocked expedited citizenship for vets, and vets get little guidance on the naturalization process.
Legislation recently introduced in Congress - the Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act - would allow deported military veterans to return to America and place immigrant vets on the road to U.S. citizenship. Last year, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the deportations “failed to live up to our highest values,” and vowed his department is “committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled.”
Thankfully, some deported Latinx vets have returned across the Mexico border and even became U.S. citizens. But what becomes of the Black veterans of the African Diaspora?
An artist who a decade ago created a mural at the border in Tijuana honoring deported veterans, Amos Gregory has elevated their cause and fought for their return. Gregory is also the founder of the San Francisco Veterans Mural Project, known as Veterans Alley.
“Almost three years ago I started pushing the deported groups to advocate for deported Black veterans,” Gregory told theGrio, noting that media attention has been focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, and organizations in California have provided support to Latinx vets. “It pissed me off that with the attention to Latinx veterans there is no attention paid to Black veterans.”
Working with deported vets, Gregory has come to know their stories. For example, consider the plight of Rudi Richardson. Born Udo Ackermann in a German women’s prison, his mother was a German Jewish Holocaust survivor, and his father was a Black American GI named George. Richardson was one of 10,000 “Brown Babies” - the children of Black soldiers and German women born in Germany after World War II. This group was highlighted in EBONY magazine.
Rudi’s case highlights the effects of systemic racism in America, Gregory said. “These unions and their children were frowned upon by the military,” he said. “And the G.I.s wanted to raise a family with women in Germany, and they were transferred. And the U.S. army purposely facilitated all this trauma and harm that happened to these German brown babies.”
After experiencing trauma and abuse in foster care, Udo was adopted as a toddler by the Richardsons, a Black military family stationed in Germany. Eventually, the Richardsons would return to the U.S., and Udo would grow up believing he was Rudi Richardson from Long Beach, California.
“He didn’t find out until he was 17 that he was adopted when he was sitting before a judge and given a choice to go to jail or go to the Army,” Gregory said.
Richardson joined the Army and became an airborne paratrooper stationed in Germany. When he was discharged from the military, he started a family. Dealing with repressed childhood trauma, drug dependency and being fired from a job because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, Richardson went downhill, winding up on Skid Row in Los Angeles. He would be deported in 2003 to Germany-where he was born but did not speak the language and was not a citizen-for petty theft.
Because his father was a U.S. citizen, Richardson was entitled to birthright citizenship but never received it. The Army had promised him he would automatically receive citizenship after his honorable discharge. Clearly, that did not happen.
Consider what becomes of deported veterans…those who were promised citizenship and dropped off in other countries after an ICE raid or getting entangled in the criminal justice system. They emerge helpless in a new country they may not remember, separated from their families without a support system and totally dependent on the local population for food, clothing and shelter.
Rudi now lives in London, where he founded the nonprofit organizations Streetlytes-UK and Open Soulz, which service the unhoused and vulnerable.
“It’s a call to action for us. We have this loss,” said Gregory of the displacement of Black people. “I consider Rudi a lost one but not lost forever. He is one of us. He is a brother, he is an African American. His ancestors were enslaved people in the United States. Why doesn’t he have his citizenship?”
Amos Gregory believes the Biden administration has a responsibility to care for deported veterans who re-enter society, a burden that Black people should not have to shoulder, even as we advocate for their return.
“There will be a lot of deported veterans coming in. What is your plan? What is your resource book so deported veterans can get their medical care, their disability, especially my combat vets with PTSD?” Gregory asked. “They shouldn’t have to come back and be re-traumatized by a system. And the community shouldn’t have to do it.”
Deported veterans are a lynchpin of the African Diaspora and how war has spread us apart and brought us back together,” Gregory says. “The systemic injustice that sends us apart, sends us far and away. Thank you for your service. Now get out.”