With everything that’s been going on, you might not have heard that Lance Corporal Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. citizen and decorated combat veteran, was detained by ICE for three days in December and narrowly escaped deportation. A PTSD sufferer, he was accused of trespassing and damaging a fire alarm in a Grand Rapids hospital; he pled guilty and expected to be released while awaiting sentencing. Instead, the jail released him to ICE, which transported him to Battle Creek. He was only released after his family retained an attorney, who intervened on his behalf.
Ramos-Gomez’s family was right to take the threat seriously. In March 2018, Miguel Perez, Jr., an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, was deported to Mexico. Also suffering from PTSD, Perez had acquired a drug problem, leading to a felony conviction. The conviction not only barred him from naturalization, but triggered deportation proceedings. Despite Senator Tammy Duckworth’s arguments on his behalf, he was thrust over the border. He had come to the United States legally as an eight year old, has two children who are citizens, and his parents are naturalized.
In August, Alejandra Juarez, the wife of retired Marine Sergeant Temo Juarez, gave up her fight to remain in the United States with her veteran husband and two citizen daughters. Revealed as undocumented to authorities in a 2013 traffic stop, she had regularly checked in, but ICE nonetheless initiated deportation proceedings against her in the new stricter Trump immigration regime. Neither her marital status nor her husband’s service, which included combat duty in Iraq, could shield her.
In the current political climate, one of the few things upon which Americans seem to agree is reverence for veterans. How, then, have we gotten to a place where racial status seems to be more important than military service? If you know your history, it’s not that surprising.
Citizenship and Service
These three cases raise questions about the relationship between citizenship and military service. While most members of the military have been citizens over the years, the United States has frequently relied on non-citizens to serve and fight. Since the 1800s, Congress has maintained a special naturalization process for non-citizens who have served. Beyond this provision, however, non-citizens’ service has long been entangled with cultural and political struggles over who should be citizens.
While non-citizens have served in every American combat engagement, the modern story starts with the Civil War, when Congress passed legislation offering a smoother path to citizenship in exchange for service. This offer, which addressed the union’s desperate need for more manpower, most directly targeted recent German and Irish immigrants, many of whom were reluctant to serve.
A different class of non-citizens, however, hoped to gain citizenship through service. Slaves near the front seized the opportunity to flee. Men, women, and their children crossed union lines and presented themselves to the military authorities, demanding to help the war effort. Initially, they were defined as enemy contraband as a way of describing their status. Black advocates for emancipation understood that their enlistment as soldiers would hasten the destruction of Dred Scott’s principle denying black citizenship. All blacks ultimately gained citizenship as a result of the Civil War, but the role of black military service in pushing for full citizenship was a critical piece of the puzzle.
Asian Military Service
The era of Asian exclusion began with congressional action in the 1880s and culminated in the closure of the United States to Asian immigration in the 1920s. Congress first acted to prevent Chinese immigrants from naturalizing, and then extended the ban to all Asians, even if they had lived in the United States for years. Yet even in this period of hostility, some Asians who were not American citizens served in the military. Both the Navy and the Army tried to limit their service, but the official records of the War Department indicate that Chinese and Japanese men were among the resident aliens who served.
When the United States entered World War I, the need for large-scale mobilization prompted the adoption of a comprehensive draft. The World War I draft called on all men of draft age to register, regardless of their citizenship status. While only aliens who intended to become citizens were expected to serve, service obligations were determined by local draft boards with little means of challenging their judgment. Of the nearly half million men initially inducted, more than 123,000 were aliens and more than 75,000 had not declared any intent to naturalize. Among their ranks were individuals whose racial backgrounds raised serious questions about their eligibility to naturalize.
Asian or Soldier?
Nonetheless, many who served expected to have access to the simple process that Congress had developed for veterans of the war. In early 1919, Sachi Shimodo, an enlisted man, presented a petition for naturalization to Federal District Court Judge Horace Vaughn in Hawaii. Vaughn granted him citizenship, sparking a controversy. A Japanese advocacy organization mobilized, and Vaughn continued to grant petitions, admitting more than 100 Japanese veterans, a handful of Koreans, and at least one Hindu. The Bureau of Naturalization was divided over the issue. Other district court judges rejected Vaughn’s analysis, ruling that Asians, regardless of their veteran status, could not become naturalized citizens.
The intense hostility toward Asians won the day. Hidemitsu Toyota had been granted citizenship in Massachusetts based on his service as a steward in the Coast Guard during World War I. The government sought to cancel his citizenship. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925, where eight Justices agreed that Toyota could not become a citizen on the basis of his military service. Toyota and the other men who had served the nation during a war were Asians first, and their service could not make them acceptable or desirable citizens. Not until the 1930s, when the Japanese American Citizens League would finally convince Congress to change the law, would these veterans become eligible to naturalize. Mexicans and Native Americans, too, have not always been granted full civic rights and privileges despite having served the United States.
Service and Civic Membership
So maybe the current ramping up of deportations to reach veterans and their families shouldn’t be so surprising. History suggests that in times when racism and xenophobia gain traction in policy, even exemplary performance of accepted civic virtues isn’t enough to overcome these views. Recognizing veterans and their contributions only paves a sure path to acceptance in America when their race or ethnic origins aren’t disfavored by the government.