EAST LANSING, Mich. — A groundbreaking documentary is raising awareness about the deportation of United States veterans.
American Exile was made by Michigan State University staff and students. The school held a special screening of the film on Thursday.
“The film, to us, is really what it means to be an American,” said Carleen Hsu, co-producer and editor. “[Veteran deportations] just doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense.”
According to Hsu and John Valdez, the documentary’s other co-producer, the practice became popular after 1996 when President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It lowered the requirements for deportation.
“It made very, very minor offenses reasons that you could deport someone,” said Valdez. “For example, if you were caught fishing without a license, you could be deported.”
The legislation was in response to shifting demographics within the United States. About 22 million people, mostly from Mexico and Latin America, came into the country.
“In this recent period of history, something has changed in the American spirit and the American psyche that has led to this national change where we’re now deporting those who would defend us abroad,” said Valdez.
It’s unknown how many veterans have been impacted by the policy, but it's estimated 65,000 foreign nationals serve in the military at any given time and over half a million are veterans.
Valdez learned about the issue after meeting Manuel and Valenta Valenzuela.
In 2009, the decorated Vietnam veterans received deportation letters for minor run-ins they had previously dealt with decades ago.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Manuel Valenzuela. “I was too embarrassed, ashamed to be deported from the country that I served.”
The incident sparked a movement, though, and the brothers began traveling the country to meet others faced with the same crisis, like Olivia Seguara’s family.
“If anybody deserves help in this country, it was my family,” said Seguara. “We had already given everything.”
On Veteran’s Day 2007, Seguara’s 20-year-old daughter, Ashley, died while serving as a paramedic in Kuwait.
As a result, Seguara says her husband turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. His addiction eventually landed him in jail for driving drunk and brought a deportation notice.
“We were already in a lot of pain with the loss of my daughter, and then what the United States did, instead of helping us to move forward or to heal, they decided my husband was a danger to the country,” said Seguara.
This summer the Biden administration halted the practice and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create a process for deported veterans and their families to return to the United States.
However, with untold amounts of people impacted, the people behind American Exile say the story needs to stay on display.
“It’s not part of our legacy to deport veterans,” said Valdez.
American Exile will air on PBS on Tuesday, Nov. 16 from 10–11 p.m. To learn more about the film, click here.