Vietnam veteran Manuel Valenzuela arrived in Washington DC on Tuesday morning, making his way across the Washington Monument's snow-covered grounds in his Marine dress uniform.
In the viewing chamber atop the monument, Chicago poet and singer Tammy Jo Dunn sang a song opposing the deportation of foreign-born American veterans. The two then briefly unfurled a banner protesting the deportations before a park ranger spotted it and ordered them to pack it in, as protests are not allowed at the monument.
Then it was back outside to wait for never-arriving scores of supporters for a march to the White House, where Valenzuela hoped to deliver a letter to President Obama asking for his help in halting the deportations. There was no march and no letter was delivered.
But Valenzuela, of Colorado, refused to be discouraged.
"Everything else we did," he said late in the afternoon, after a handful of supporters who had driven in from Chicago arrived and joined him at the Capitol. "We did get to talk to the congressmen and got them tied in with helping veterans."
Valenzuela could not have picked a worse day to bring his years-long protest against veteran deportations to Washington. Not only was it the first snowfall of the season but it was the first day of the new Congress, with new members being sworn in and the Capitol jammed with family, friends and supporters of new and returning lawmakers.
But Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, did promise to consider reintroducing legislation that would prohibit deporting non-citizen veterans who served honorably in the U.S. military. Bills including that provision were introduced in 2011 and 2013 but died in committee. In what was probably the political high-point of the day for Valenzuela, Quigley posed with the protest banner outside his office.
In his meetings with some congressional staffers, he was joined by former Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Esteban Burgoa -- a naturalized American citizen -- and Susana Sandoval, an activist with Dreamer Moms USA, representing undocumented mothers who face deportation.
Manuel -- along with his Army Vietnam veteran brother, Vicente -- has been fighting for the cause for more than five years, since the Department of Homeland Security dug up a decade-old conviction for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Vicente was convicted years ago for domestic violence.
The Valenzuelas case is unique in that both were born in Mexico, but there mother was an American citizen. After years of fighting deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement put a hold on proceedings against them and issued them green cards. Valenzuela said ICE could re-initiate proceedings at any time. He also resents the green card status because his mother was an American citizen and he should have citizenship based on that, he said.
He is one of the lucky ones, however. In some cases, veterans have been deported to countries where they had not lived since childhood, even infancy, sent to a country whose language they do not speak. One Vietnam veteran, Manuel de Jesus Castano, was deported to Mexico in 2012, died several months later, and was then allowed to be buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery with full military honors.
Veterans groups show no sympathy for the veterans.
The American Legion declined to comment, while a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars told Military.com that "an honorable discharge is not a free pass to break our nation's laws."
"To me that excuse from a veterans organization is the stupidest thing," Valenzuela said. Many veterans who got into trouble were dealing with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder -- which could be linked to their military service, he said. "They [VSOs] should open up and see that, and not put us down as criminals."
One group of allies consists of World War II veterans in Colorado Springs, where former 11th Airborne Division paratrooper Steve Graff said Valenzuela has "lots of friends."
"We can drum up a lot of support for these guys, but we didn't have much notice" of the Washington protest, Graff said in a phone interview on Tuesday. He is a lifetime member of the Legion, and belongs to a post with 136 members, many of them World War II vets. "We all back those guys," he said.
At the higher levels, he said, VSO leaders can become self-absorbed and political.
"They are so chicken-shit some of them. they don't want to get involved in a lot of problems, they think more of t heir own butts," he said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.