When you join the U.S. Marine Corps, you are taught to “leave no man behind.”
I lived and breathed those words while serving as an infantryman in the First Battalion, 7th Regiment in Iraq.
These days, however, that maxim holds a very different meaning.
I came to the United States from Mexico with my family as a minor and overstayed my visa. By the time I was 18, I believed this was my home and I was willing to fight for my country.
I enlisted but I failed to disclose that I was not an American citizen. When I attempted to volunteer for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, my secret was revealed. I lied so I could serve this country.
Three years after I first became a Marine, I suddenly found myself in Tijuana, unable to come back to the country I called home.
I spent the next five years unable to see my family, my friends, even those I served with in Iraq.
I soon discovered that I was not alone. I met dozens of other foreign-born veterans, who after serving honorably in the U.S. military, were deported for one reason or another.
Some of the veterans fell on hard times after they were discharged. Others suffered from PTSD, depression, addiction or other psychological wounds that stemmed from their service. Yet few received the help they needed and deserved.
All of them were eligible to become U.S. citizens because of their service—in fact, many were promised automatic naturalization but never received it.
Instead, many of them were banished to another country because the federal government failed to provide the help they needed to naturalize while in the military.
That’s shameful, unjust and un-American.
The plight of many of these veterans is chronicled in “Discharged, Then Discarded,” a new report released this week by the ACLU of California that details how veterans have become victims of a system that fails to ensure they obtain citizenship and then subjects them to punitive immigration laws.
The reality is that foreign-born veterans are among the most loyal Americans. They are willing to defend you and your family. They are prepared to die for this country.
Unfortunately, once their term of service is up, many of those green-card veterans are being torn from their homes and families, treated as if they are disposable.
I am now an American citizen because the ACLU and others stood up for me.
Now it’s time for us to stand up for banished veterans. They are not foreigners. They are Americans in exile. Their biggest fault is that they weren’t born on this side of the fence. This only makes their service, sacrifice and loyalty that much more honorable.
Yet I am only one of many who served, and the only one who was able to return. Veterans from every conflict and every nation are now deported to a place far from home, because for us the United States is home.
These veterans are this nation’s brave, yet they are not free.
Regardless of what your political views are, I think we can all agree that an American veteran belongs in America.
Lance Cpl. Daniel Torres became a U.S. citizen on April 21, 2016, after five years of exile in Mexico. His story is part of the ACLU of California’s report: “Discharged, Then Discarded.” Download the report in .pdf.