By Viji Sundaram, New America Media
Forty-four-year-old Ramdeo Chankar Singh is at his wits' end.
The former U.S. soldier, honorably discharged from the Army nine years ago, believes he is fully qualified to become a U.S. citizen, and has been trying to become one for almost a decade. But immigration officials are telling him he doesn't meet the eligibility requirements.
Not only that, Singh, married to a Trinidadian native like himself, and with two U.S.-born children ages 10 and 5, is now facing deportation. A hearing has been set for March 22.
"They are, in effect, saying I am a man without a country," Singh said in a telephone interview from his home in Queens, N.Y. "I don't understand this.
"I've been paying my taxes for years, have never got into trouble with the law and served in the military for nine years. I don't need to buy my citizenship; I believe I have earned it."
What is making him more confused and frustrated is that after passing his naturalization test back in September 2004, he was initially told by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that his citizenship application "has been recommended for approval."
DOJ informed him, "At this time it appears you have established your eligibility for naturalization. If final approval is granted, you will be notified when and where to report for the Oath Ceremony."
That notification never came, and on Dec. 1, 2004, Singh was told that his petition was denied because he did not "meet the requirements" of the provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, under which he had filed.
Since then, Singh and his wife, Savitri, have spent countless hours researching U.S. immigration laws and presidential executive orders relating to citizenship eligibility for immigrants who served in the military around the time Singh did.
So far Singh has spent nearly $60,000 in lawyers' fees in his citizenship fight. He has written pleas for help to lawmakers, especially congressional representatives from New York, such as Rep. Gregory Meeks and Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, who is now Secretary of State.
Singh said some responded, saying they would contact immigration officials, but nothing has come of those promises to date.
His case reflects the complex relationship between the federal government and immigrants in the armed forces. Undocumented immigrants aren't allowed to join, but if they find a way to get in, immigration laws sometimes provide them a path to citizenship.
Through its proposed DREAM Act, the Obama administration hopes to bolster enlistment partly by legalizing some undocumented immigrants willing to join the military. The Senate rejected the DREAM Act last December, but administration officials are trying to get it reintroduced.
Singh knows that the one crucial thing he needs for securing U.S. citizenship is a green card, or permanent residency. But he is convinced that his years of service in the military overrides that requirement--a conviction reinforced by Edward M. Daniels II, a New York-based Veterans Affairs advocate, who has joined forces with Singh in his fight for U.S. citizenship.
"The Immigration and Nationality Act [INA] is all that's needed to prove that he is entitled to becoming a citizen," Daniels asserted.
In 1981, at age 15, Singh came to the United States from his native Trinidad via Canada without legal documents. He soon began earning a living.
Ten years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, soon after obtaining a work permit through a class action lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on behalf of immigrants of any nationality, who were wrongfully told they were ineligible for amnesty under a special federal program. At the time of getting the work permit, Singh said he was led to believe that it would automatically lead to permanent residency.
But as it turned out, "the LULAC lawsuit kept dragging on and on, " said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Eventually, some who had applied for amnesty got it. But not Singh.
In 1993, the Army sent Singh to Germany for a few months, before he returned to New York and served in the Army Reserves for about six years before he pulled a tour in war-torn Kosovo. In both overseas postings, he worked as a licensed practical nurse with the rank of sergeant. In March 2001, he was honorably discharged. Two years later, he filed for naturalization.
In his 2007 lawsuit against the district director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), seeking another review of his naturalization application, Singh invoked Section 329 of the INA, , as well as a Persian Gulf War executive order issued by President Clinton allowing immigrants, documented or otherwise, who have served in a combat zone to receive expedited citizenship.
"I was in Kosovo in 1999," a combat zone, Singh asserted. "That automatically makes me eligible."
But it is here that Singh fell through cracks both in the INA and the executive order, according to Margaret Stock, an expert on military citizenship, who served in the U.S. military for 28 years. Stock, an attorney, said she has worked on military-related immigration issues for the Pentagon.
There is no executive order that covers the time when Singh served in the Army, she said. In fact, there is no executive order relating to military citizenship covering the period between April 12, 1991 and Sept. 11, 2001, Stock said.
Clinton did sign an executive order to exempt soldiers who were on active duty in Kosovo from filing their income tax returns, Stock said. But that order did not allow for expedited citizenship of military personnel. Clinton issued a different executive order regarding military citizenship only covering veterans who served from Aug. 2, 1990 and April 11, 1991. In his lawsuit, Singh maintained there was no closing date to that order, and therefore was still in effect when he joined the Army.
"I sympathize with Singh, but he is wrong" on all counts, said Stock, who said she was familiar with Singh's case and is writing a paper on it.
She said that had Singh stayed in the Army until September 11, 2001, instead of being discharged in March 2001, he might have qualified for citizenship under President George W. Bush's executive order, issued soon after the World Trade Center towers came down.
That order, still in effect, expedites citizenship for anyone serving in the military, or receiving an honorable discharge, on or after 9/11.
When there is no executive order in effect, another law allows immigrants--but only those with green cards--to have their citizenship expedited through military service.
For this reason, Stock said, when Singh joined the military, he was supposed to have a green card. But Singh joined at a time when neither recruiters nor the military "really knew what a green card was."
She explained, "Recruiters were not trained in immigration law. Some of them put out wrong information." And she added: "Now Homeland Security carefully checks your documents. A guy like Singh wouldn't be allowed to join the military today."
Stock said she thinks Singh's best bet now would be to plead with the judge at the upcoming hearing to cancel the deportation orders against him on compassionate grounds. He should convince the judge that his two U.S.-born children would face "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" if he were deported.
The other option Singh has, she said, is to petition President Obama to issue an executive order that covers the period Singh served in the Army.
"Many times presidents forget to issue an executive order to cover foreign armed conflicts," she said. "But a president can do this retroactively. There's nothing to stop President Obama from doing this."
Neither suggestion appeals to Singh. He believes he has a "straightforward case" that should win him citizenship.
He is now planning to convince the judge at his upcoming hearing that there is yet another provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act that states that a soldier who has served in a combat zone "even for a day" is entitled to U.S. citizenship.
"But that law applies only if an executive order is in effect," pointed out Stock, noting: "In fact, you don't even have to spend time in a combat zone. You can serve anywhere. But there was no such order in effect when Singh was in the Army."
Veterans Affairs advocate Daniels asserted that Singh should get his citizenship purely because of his long service in the military.
"I don't know why they are persecuting him like this," Daniels said. "I'm puzzled by [the DOJ's] reaction.
"Talk about injustice," he went on. "This is the epitome of it. It's a black eye on the U.S. military."