Latino legislators bring attention to nation’s military veterans

Recently, several members of Congress who focus on issues affecting the nation’s 19 million military veterans — including more than 1.5 million in Florida alone — introduced legislation that they say will help alleviate a long-standing backlog at the U.S. Veterans Administration for processing disability claims and other benefits, including access to educational opportunities. 

“The Veterans Administration Backlog Accountability Act will require the Department of Veterans Affairs to address its overwhelming backlog of disability compensation claims, ensuring veterans can more promptly receive their disability pay,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA), who introduced the “Veterans Administration Backlog Accountability Act” and the “GI Bill Distance Learning Improvement Act.” 

“(The education bill) expands access to education opportunities for GI Bill recipients by providing funding for students to purchase the technology necessary to participate in online education programs,” Rep. Torres added.

Rep. Rubén Gallego (D-AZ) is a Marine Corps veteran and asks the Biden administration to evaluate what Gallego says is the high number of immigrant veterans deported each year, leading many of those veterans to feel forgotten by the country they chose to serve and defend. 

A good number of these veterans are deported for largely minor drug offenses that started as untreated conditions, says Gallego, who recounts in a recently published memoir the “bureaucratic snafus” at the Veterans Administration that delayed or even denied aid to military personnel.  

“Many of them are getting deported because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A lot of them came back (from war zones) and self-medicated themselves because the Veterans Administration wasn’t ready to accept them,” he said during a recent press conference. “There were legal permanent residents that didn’t get their right, their citizenship, and we sent them overseas where they have VA benefits, but there is no VA in Mexico (or anywhere else outside of the United States and its territories).”

Over the summer, the Biden administration announced that it was working to bring back to the United States those veterans who had been “unjustly deported,” setting up a partnership between the VA and the Department of Homeland Security to streamline the process. Still, veteran advocates say the process takes too long and determining who was “unjustly deported” can be too subjective. 

The overwhelming majority of immigrant veterans who are deported are Latinos born in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

According to figures from the American Legion, the U.S. military relies heavily on foreign-born recruits — about 5,000 non-citizens enlist each year, and about 24,000 non-citizen immigrants are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces. Many of these immigrants join as a fast-track pathway toward U.S. citizenship, but legislators say the process is more often cumbersome and needlessly long.

Earlier this year, Rep. Vicente González (D-TX) introduced the “Repatriate Our Patriots Act,” which provides for an expedited naturalization process for immigrant veterans and protects from deportation those who have not been convicted of a major crime. The legislation has support from members of both parties, including several Latino legislators. 

According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, Hispanics are the fastest-growing population in the military, comprising about 16% of all active-duty personnel, three times their share in 1980. 

Legislators vow that they will continue to push this issue to the front of the line. 

Fabian Osorio is a Colombian-Canadian senior student at FIU pursuing a bachelor's degree in broadcast media and a master's in Spanish language journalism. He has extensive experience in coordinating social media platforms, writing, photography, and videography. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he wants to work for the Hispanic television network in Miami, becoming a strong voice for the Hispanic community.