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US senator pushes back after deported Marine not allowed to enter US for citizenship interview

Tammy Duckworth, the assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, speaks at the 2009 National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Training Workshop Oct. 27, 2009, in Landsdowne, Va. (Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy/U.S. Army)

An Illinois senator is pushing back on unclear government policies for deported veterans who are trying to naturalize after a former Marine was not allowed into the United States for his scheduled citizenship interview.

In mid-July, Roman Sabal traveled from his home country of Belize to Tijuana to try to attend his appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in San Diego. Despite his lawyer’s appeals, officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry wouldn’t let him inside the country he had once sworn to protect.

He ended up traveling back to Belize, disappointed.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and to the Department of State on Thursday to pressure the various agencies involved in immigration issues to provide clear guidance to deported veterans who are trying to gain what was a promised part of their service — citizenship.

There are three different federal agencies that can let someone into the U.S. temporarily through a process called “parole.” Though the agencies have an agreement dictating which will decide whether to parole someone into the country in different cases, it is not clear which is responsible for cases like Sabal’s.

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“This lack of clarity deprives veterans of a fair chance for citizenship and further delays the naturalization process,” wrote the Illinois Democrat.

Duckworth, herself a veteran, has pushed for Congress to act on behalf of deported veterans and has introduced a bill that would help them.

She urged the U.S. government to take immediate action to make sure Sabal can attend his citizenship interview.

Sabal, 58, hopes to reunite with his family — his partner and their two children — who are all U.S. citizens. He has waited to marry his partner Arnissa Boatwright until they could be reunited in the United States.

He had first come to the U.S. on a visitor visa with the intention of becoming part of the Marine Corps, and in 1987, he succeeded in joining.

At first, he told his recruiter that he was a U.S. citizen. During boot camp, he came clean and admitted that he was actually from Belize.

“I was told, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re a Marine now. You’ll be OK,’” Sabal said. “I learned later on that wasn’t true.”

He served for six years before being honorably discharged. Then he served in the Army Reserves for several years.

He met Boatwright in Jacksonville, Florida, and they began their family.

Sabal tried to naturalize on his own through his military service in 1995. He never heard a final decision on that application, and in the 2000s, he returned to Belize for help with a medical issue — diabetes.

When he came back to the U.S., to Chicago, where Boatwright was then living, he had trouble getting in but was eventually allowed through customs.

The government opened an immigration court case against him, but he never received the notice about his hearing date. A judge ordered him deported in his absence.

When his diabetes grew worse again, he went back to Belize. When he tried to come back to his family, he found out that he couldn’t because he’d been ordered deported.

More recently, a team of lawyers from Public Counsel’s Immigrants’ Rights Project began helping Sabal with his case. They sent requests that he be allowed in for his July interview and heard no response from the federal government.

With no clear path to follow, they decided to show up at the port of entry on the date of his interview and request that he be temporarily let in. That didn’t work either.

They are still hopeful that Sabal will become a citizen, but it’s not clear how long or what legal process that might take.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune