The Biden administration on Friday announced it is formalizing a new process to allow immigrants who served in the U.S. military and were later deported to return to the country legally.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered the nation's immigration agencies to craft a "rigorous, systematic approach" to review the cases of immigrants whose deportations "failed to live up to our highest values."
"Together with our partner the Department of Veterans Affairs, we are 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," Mayorkas said in a statement. "Today we are taking important steps to make that a reality."
In a memo sent to Mayorkas on Friday and obtained by CBS News, top DHS immigration officials said they would use prosecutorial discretion and "other legal authorities" to facilitate the return of eligible veterans and immediate family members of U.S. service members.
Returning to the U.S., the DHS officials argued, would grant deported veterans access to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, lawyers and the U.S. immigration system, where they could reopen their deportation cases and seek forms of relief to remain in the country legally.
The overall objective is to "support humane and consistent outcomes," the memo said.
"Those who have served in our military have performed the noblest and most selfless service," the memo said. "Our policies and practices must reflect this fundamental principle."
Mayorkas said he also instructed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to "immediately conduct a review of policies and practices" to ensure immigrant service members can remain in the U.S. and access immigration benefits, including naturalized citizenship.
In their memo, the top DHS immigration officials told Mayorkas that military service should be "proactively identified and given due consideration" when deportation agents decide whether to detain immigrants. Prosecutorial discretion could be used in such cases, the officials said.
Deported veterans typically enlisted in the U.S. military as green card holders and later found themselves in deportation proceedings after being convicted of certain crimes — including non-violent ones — that render immigrants deportable under U.S. immigration law.
Once deported, immigrants can be banished from the U.S. for up to 20 years or permanently, even if they served in the military.
The new process to adjudicate requests for the return of banished U.S. military veterans is part of a broader Biden administration initiative aimed at assisting immigrant service members and their families.
DHS will establish an online resource center to help U.S. services members and their families with immigration matters, according to Friday's memo.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said it is working with U.S. immigration officials to identify deported veterans and allow them to access government benefits and COVID-19 vaccination.