SAN FRANCISCO, USA (AP) — When Rohan Coombs joined the US Marine Corps, he never thought one day he would be locked up in an immigration detention centre and facing deportation from the country he had vowed to defend.
Coombs, 43, born in Jamaica, immigrated to the United States legally as a child with his family. He signed up to serve his adopted nation for six years — first in Japan and the Philippines, then in the Persian Gulf during the first war with Iraq.
Up to 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the US Armed Forces every year and serve alongside American troops. As of May 2010, there were 16,966 non-citizens on active duty.
If they die while serving, they are given citizenship and a military funeral. If they live and get in trouble with the law, as Coombs did, they can get caught in the net of a 1996 immigration law that greatly expanded the list of crimes for which non-citizens can be deported.
“As far as I was concerned, I was a citizen,” said Coombs, whose soft-spoken, introspective nature contrast with his physical presence. Coombs stands six foot five and weighs more than 260 pounds — a gentle giant, according to his fiancee, Robyn Sword.
Now advocates of non-citizen servicemen and women are trying to change that. Attorneys are taking cases like Coombs’ to court, arguing that an immigrant who serves in the Armed Forces should be considered a US national and protected from deportation.
“These are people who served us — whether they are model human beings or not,” said Coombs’ attorney, Craig Shagin of Harrisburg, Pa.
Rep Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is looking into potential changes to the law so immigrants who serve in the military can avoid deportation.
“An incredible number of kids come back with an injury or illness that puts them in trouble with the law. To simply have these people deported is not a good way to thank them for their service,” Filner said.
Advocates estimate that thousands of veterans have been deported or are in detention. Government officials say they have no tally, but plan to begin tracking the numbers.
The push comes as criminal courts are increasingly listening to arguments for leniency for veterans.
So-called veterans courts, which give them specialised treatment, now number more than 30, with a dozen more planned.
Next month, new US Sentencing Commission rules will make it possible for federal judges to consider a criminal defendant’s military service and mental and emotional condition to issue a lesser prison sentence. The rules, however, would not apply to immigration judges.
Most immigrants serve with distinction. The Centre for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development centre for the Navy and the Marine Corps, found that non-citizens are far more likely to complete their enlistment obligations successfully than their US-born counterparts.
Coombs was one who did not make the grade.
He spent 10 months in the Persian Gulf and lost friends to combat, he said. After the war, he felt depressed and anxious. His family was far away in New York, and he said “whining” to fellow Marines didn’t seem an option.
Instead, he got involved with drugs, and he got caught.
In 1992, he was court-martialled for possession of cocaine and marijuana with the intent to distribute, and was given 18 months of confinement and a dishonorable discharge.
He continued to struggle with drugs.
“Things would be going well, then something would happen,” he said.
He got married, and that helped. When his wife died in 2001 of diabetes-related complications, he started smoking marijuana again.
In 2008, he was busted for selling marijuana to an undercover officer while working as a bouncer in an Orange County bar. He spent eight months in state prison.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement found that his criminal convictions made him eligible for deportation, and he was turned over to ICE after serving his sentence. He has been held in a San Diego immigration detention centre for 22 months and is appealing to the 9th US Circuit Court.
“This is the only life I’ve known,” he said. “The only time I left this country was when I was deployed overseas. This is my home.”
“If I had died,” said Coombs, “they would have made me a citizen, given me a military funeral, and given the flag to my mom. But I didn’t die. Here I am. I just want another chance.”