Imagine moving to a new country and serving in the military for close to a decade, raising a family, all the while maintaining a clean record – then getting deported anyway. Former Marine Sgt. Roman Sabal is just one of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of deported veterans scattered across the globe – and one of seven with pending immigration cases. He has been living in his native Belize since he returned to visit his mother in 2008 and has been denied entry even for just one day to attend his own citizenship interview.
It was while serving in his original nation’s military that Sgt. Sabal first encountered the US Marines. He saw them during a training exercise in Panama and was impressed by what he called hardcore training. He entered the US in the 1980s on a tourist visa, then enlisted in the Marines in 1987 using false identification.
He lied to enlist – but later came clean during basic training. How did the Marines react to discovering his deception? “Don’t worry about it. You’re a Marine now. You’ll be OK,” Sabal claims he was told. And for a long time, he was. He served in the Marines for six years, was honorably discharged, then joined the Army National Guard for several more.
The foreign-born sergeant did apply for citizenship in 1995, but he says that he never got a response. He met a woman, fell in love, and started a family. They haven’t married yet; he insisted they wait until he could be naturalized so that no one could say she was nothing more to him than a ticket to citizenship. He has a 20-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter – American citizens, both of them – who haven’t seen their father in person for at least half their lives, save a visit to Belize in 2014.
Thousands of would-be immigrants have enlisted in the US military in hopes of earning their citizenship. Most were promised precisely that, and many even believed – falsely, unfortunately – that when they swore in to the military, they swore in as citizens. There is a path to citizenship specifically for those who serve this nation, but, clearly, it often fails.
Another ousted veteran, a former US Army paratrooper who served in the 82nd Airborne Division for six years, Hector Barajas, has been living in Tijuana, Mexico since his own deportation. He founded Banished Veterans, an organization to help veterans adjust to their post-service and post-deportation lives in their new countries.
So how many American soldiers have been given the boot? Banished Veterans estimates that number to be anywhere from 3,000 to 30,000. It’s hard to say, exactly, as veteran status isn’t one of the data points reported in deportation statistics. Many of these people have been convicted of some crime, and for a lot of folks, that justifies it. For acts of violence, maybe it does. But deportable offenses can be as minor as writing a bad check. In any case, had they been naturalized when they were eligible for citizenship – often during their service, and almost always by the point of discharge – these people would have served whatever punishment the courts deemed worthy and then got on with their lives – as Americans.
So what crime cost Sgt. Sabal his family and his life in the States? Visiting his mother, apparently. Roman Sabal had stayed out of trouble for the two decades he lived in this country, then he discovered he had diabetes. His mother wanted him to return to Belize for holistic treatment. In 2008, frustrated with his medical progress here, he did. It was on his way back into this country that border guards saw his pending application for citizenship in the system and denied him entry. Sabal eventually discovered that he had missed a hearing that he wasn’t aware of because he didn’t get the letter. Since he didn’t show, the judge ordered him deported.
Still, one might argue that Sgt. Sabal broke the law when he lied to enlist in the Marines. This is true. It’s a crime the government allegedly knew about and didn’t see fit to address for over 20 years, but a crime none the less.
For those who might say even just lying to enlist outweighs Sabal’s service and otherwise clean record, what about all the other American soldiers who lied to enlist? It’s common knowledge that in both world wars, many young boys exaggerated their age in order to join the fight – and often, the military seemed happy to look the other way. Consider Calvin Graham, the Texas sixth-grader who became a gunner on the USS South Dakota at age 12. Or Ray Jackson, who joined the Marines at 16. Many boys became men during the wars, and of those who made it home, many were recognized as heroes. In 1991, Jackson started Veterans of Underage Military Service – a group that listed more than 1,200 members, including 26 women.
Should we round up all the surviving veterans who lied about their age, strip them of their honors and benefits, and brand them criminals? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as the saying goes. If lying in order to serve in the US military is, by itself, an offense worthy of such strict enforcement, then should that not be applied fairly across the board?
So what will become of Sgt. Roman Sabal? Will he continue to be denied his shot at reuniting with his family as a legal citizen, or can his military service and then banishment be considered time served for the crime of lying to the government over three decades ago?