US Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not know exactly how many noncitizen veterans it has deported over the last five years, according to a federal watchdog group.
In a new report released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office not only concluded that ICE has failed to consistently adhere to its own policies related to cases of veterans who may be subject to deportation but also lacks a complete record of how many of these individuals were removed from the US from 2013 to 2018.
"ICE has developed policies for handling cases of noncitizen veterans who may be subject to removal from the United States, but does not consistently adhere to those policies, and does not consistently identify and track such veterans," the report states.
"Additionally, ICE has not developed a policy to identify and document all military veterans it encounters during interviews, and in cases when agents and officers do learn they have encountered a veteran, ICE does not maintain complete electronic data," it reads. "Therefore, ICE does not have reasonable assurance that it is consistently implementing its policies for handling veterans' cases."
Those findings have drawn the ire of Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who's the chairman of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee, who sent a letter to acting ICE Director Mark Morgan on Thursday demanding answers.
"I was deeply alarmed by the findings in the report that show not only are we unable to fully quantify how many of these men and women are being deported, but that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has certain policies already in place to which it consistently fails to adhere," he wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained exclusively by CNN.
An ICE spokesperson said in a statement that the agency "respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans" and noted that "any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an individual with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel."
"ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate. ICE specifically identifies service in the US military as a positive factor that should be considered along with other factors in the totality of the circumstances when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised," the statement said.
When ICE agents and officers learn they have encountered a potentially removable veteran, they are required under agency policy to take additional steps to proceed with the case. These policies are intended to help ensure that veterans receive appropriate levels of review before they are placed in removal proceedings, according to the GAO.
"Because ICE did not consistently follow these policies, some veterans who were removed may not have received the level of review and approval that ICE has determined is appropriate for cases involving veterans," the report says.
"Our government is failing our immigrant veterans -- men and women who have dutifully served our nation," Rep. Juan Vargas, also a California Democrat, said in a statement to CNN. "The GAO report reveals obvious instances of mismanagement and policy noncompliance that have led to numerous veteran deportations."
But according to ICE, applicable law requires the agency "to mandatorily detain and process for removal individuals who have been convicted of aggravated felonies as defined under the Immigration and Nationality Act."
"In 100 percent of the veteran case files GAO reviewed, the individuals were placed into removal proceedings because of felony convictions related to drugs; sexual abuse, of which 18 involved minors; firearms, explosives, or explosive material; kidnapping; terrorist threats; and other crimes," the agency said in its statement.
Specifically, Takano and Vargas have asked Morgan to address the following questions:
- What steps will ICE take to ensure full adoption and compliance with the 2015 ICE Directive 16001.2 and the 2004 memo issued by acting Director Victor Cerda to standardize the reporting requirements for potentially removable individuals?
- Does ICE have any existing plans or plans currently in development to strengthen its internal requirements to document the veteran status or service history of potentially removable individuals?
- What additional training will be adopted in response to GAO's findings that ICE personnel do not consistently adhere to its own policies on the handling of potentially removable individuals who are veterans?
- What additional processes or procedures will be adopted to ensure that ICE can accurately inventory the total number of veterans current in removal proceedings and identify new potentially removable veterans?
- What additional authorities may be necessary to satisfy the recommendations in the GAO report?
"We cannot allow noncitizen veterans to fall through the cracks of our broken immigration system," Takano told CNN. "Deporting veterans represents a failure by our government that could have been prevented if ICE officials had been adhering to agency policies.
"This level of carelessness and disregard for official procedures is negligent and unacceptable. Although we do not know the exact number of deported veterans, we do know that one deported veteran is one too many. It's one more veteran who does not have access to the benefits and care they earned and who has been removed from the country they fought for," he added.
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