On the 2020 campaign trail, President Joe Biden promised to protect from deportation immigrant veterans, immigrants active in the military, and their families.
Immigrants who join the military must be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident; they cannot be in the country illegally. But green card holders can be deported if they are convicted of certain weapons crimes, drug crimes or domestic violence.
In 2008, the Defense Department created the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program allowing certain immigrants without a legal status, including people under Temporary Protected Status and in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program ended in 2016 over security concerns.
In October, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reached a settlement agreement in a class action case with members of the military program; the settlement allowed eligible members to become naturalized citizens.
Usually, people have to be green card holders for at least three to five years before being eligible to apply for naturalization, the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Military members can be fast-tracked for this process.
The number of naturalized service members increased from around 4,500 in 2020 to more than 10,600 in 2022. Once an immigrant becomes a citizen, they cannot be deported, unless they became citizens fraudulently.
For decades, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been expected to consider a person's military service before deporting them. But a 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that ICE did not consistently follow such policies before starting deportation proceedings against veterans.
From 2013 to 2018, ICE placed 250 veterans in deportation proceedings and deported 92 of them, the report said. PolitiFact did not find publicly available data on how many veterans or military service members have been deported since 2018.
To address the report's findings, ICE in May created an official agency-wide policy directing agents to consider a person's military service before starting a deportation process. Under the policy, barring extenuating circumstances, agents:
Must ask every immigrant if they have served, are currently serving or have an immediate family member in the U.S. military;
Shouldn't start deportation processes against service members who are eligible for naturalization; and
Shouldn't seek to deport active members of the military.
The policy also created training requirements and reporting systems for ICE agents to follow when dealing with immigrant veterans or service members.
In February, the departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Defense created an online platform under the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative to help immigrant members of the military gain legal support, naturalization or humanitarian parole — if they have been deported.
Although there has been progress on Biden's promise to protect military members from deportation, immigration attorney and retired Lt. Col. Margaret Stock said the government has more work to do to protect veterans from deportation and make the naturalization process more accessible. Customs and Border Protection, another agency within DHS, also does not follow ICE's new guidelines, Stock said.
The problem is that "everybody focuses only on one agency and doesn't look at all the other agencies that are involved in immigration," Stock said.
Stock said she is representing a veteran who tried entering the U.S. after serving abroad and was placed into deportation proceedings at the airport.
During the Obama administration, DHS created a program to help military members in U.S. army bases become citizens during basic training and before deployment. The Trump administration ended the program, and it has not been reinstated.
So far, Biden has directed ICE to not target veterans and to consider their service before deporting them. But experts say more can be done to fulfill this promise, including giving the same directive to another immigration agency.
We'll continue to monitor this promise, but based on the progress we rate it In the Works.