A veteran who served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and two tours in Iraq is facing imminent deportation to El Salvador -- a country he left when he was 3 years old -- over felony convictions despite being a legal permanent resident.
While his lawyer and advocates say they are not trying to excuse his behavior -- which includes corporal injury to a spouse, for which he served 8 years in prison -- they claim that the injuries Jose Segovia-Benitez sustained while serving in the military, and the failure of Veterans Affairs doctors to properly diagnose him with PTSD for years, helped contribute to his predicament.
According to a government watchdog report, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed 250 veterans in removal proceedings from 2013-2018. But the number may be higher because "ICE does not maintain complete electronic data on veterans who have been placed in removal proceedings or removed," according to the agency, despite the fact that agency is supposed to take additional steps when it encounters a deportable veteran.
Segovia-Benitez, 38, had been held at the at the ICE processing center in Adelanto, California since January 2018, when he was detained by the agency after being released from prison, his representatives told ABC News. He left the facility on Tuesday to start the process of his deportation, but he was unexpectedly pulled off a departing flight in Arizona Wednesday and has been at an ICE facility there ever since, Brandee Dudzic, executive director of Repatriate our Patriots, a non-profit organization that advocates for U.S. veterans who are deported, told ABC News.
It is unclear why his deportation to El Salvador was interrupted, Dudzic said. ICE did not immediately confirm those details to ABC News.
Segovia-Benitez arrived in the U.S. with his parents when he was 3 years old and settled down in Long Beach, California, Dudzic said. He enlisted in the Marines in 1999, a week after graduating high school, after years of wanting to serve his country.
"There's photos of him at high school and track practice with dog tags around his neck," Dudzic said. "This was something he wanted to do for a long time."
In 2002, Segovia-Benitez was promoted to corporal and he deployed to Iraq in April 2003, at the start of the Iraq War, Dudzic said. Segovia-Benitez then re-enlisted in July 2003 after his four-year contract ended and returned to Iraq later that year, advocates said.
Segovia-Benitez suffered a traumatic brain injury in December 2003 after an explosion occurred near his vehicle, his immigration attorney, Wayne Spindler, told ABC News. He returned to the U.S. in July 2004 and was honorably discharged in September of that year, his representatives said.
However, his PTSD was not diagnosed until 2011. As a result, he was given a 70% disability rating, which qualified him for a range of services that he would not have been able to receive without that designation, Dudzic said.
A spokeswoman for the Marine Corps confirmed the details of Segovia-Benitez's rank and his dates of service. But the information in Segovia-Benitez's file did not include his re-enlistment, which included his second tour in Iraq, or that he was honorably discharged, the spokeswoman said.
His military awards included the Combat Action Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, according to his Marine Corps file.
Trouble with the law
Segovia-Benitez's convictions include DUI, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, narcotics possession and corporal injury to a spouse in 2010, for which he received an 8-year sentence -- his lengthiest term in prison, ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley told ABC News. The details of those cases were not immediately available. Segovia-Benitez served time for all of the convictions concurrently, Spindler said.
A judge ordered Segovia-Benitez to be removed to El Salvador in October 2018. According to an ICE official, his "extensive criminal history," which includes "an aggravated felony," allows for him to be removed, despite his military service and length of time he resided in the U.S., under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
According to his lawyer, Segovia-Benitez committed all of the crimes he was convicted of before his PTSD diagnosis. Even before he was diagnosed, Segovia-Benitez knew he was "not OK" and was seeking one-on-one treatment and attending support groups on his own, Dudzic said. She alleged that the VA mismanaged his case, which led him to self-medicate as a means of coping. A representative for the VA referred ABC News to the Department of Homeland Security when asked for comment, which did not immediately respond.
Dudzic said Segovia-Benitez's representatives aren't trying to "excuse his behavior" but rather provide context to the his underlying medical condition that may have contributed to the crimes.
According to the VA, there is a link between PTSD and "an increased risk of violence."
But the agency cautions that when other factors are controlled, the risk of violence with PTSD as a factor alone decreases. "When other factors like alcohol and drug misuse, additional psychiatric disorders, or younger age are considered, the association between PTSD and violence is decreased," the VA says.
The process of deporting veterans who have committed felonies is "common practice," Spindler said.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, "Congress in the span of less than a decade vastly expanded the grounds for deportation and whittled away the available avenues for relief."
Under the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, any non-citizen who completed their prison sentence for an aggravated felony was subject to detainer by immigration authorities. Over the years, the definition of "aggravated felony" expanded from murder and weapons trafficking to "crimes of violence, racketeering, theft or burglary for which the term of imprisonment was five years or more, money laundering, trafficking of any federally controlled substance, additional weapons offenses, prostitution related offenses, tax evasion, and certain categories of fraud," the ACLU wrote.
And in 1996, "Congress eliminated all forms of discretionary relief for people with convictions falling within the expanded aggravated felony definition," the ACLU said.
For the report, the ACLU interviewed 59 veterans, many of whom were deported because of "aggravated felony" convictions. A number of those crimes would not have been considered aggravated felonies before changes in the 1990s, including theft with sentence of a year or more, the report said.
Segovia-Benitez first started the process to apply for citizenship in 2002, while he was still enlisted, and was finger-printed for the purposes of naturalization in 2004, Dudzic said. However, when he missed an interview appointment, his application was administratively closed, and requests to reschedule his interview and hold it at the Adelanto facility have been denied, Dudzic said. DHS did not immediately respond to ABC News request for comment.
Segovia-Benitez's case is before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Spindler said, adding that he could very well be in El Salvador when the decision is made. The details of the appeal were not immediately available as the documents are under seal.
In addition to the appeals process, Segovia-Benitez's representatives have filed a pardon application with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Spindler said. Segovia-Benitez is also one of 19 plaintiffs suing ICE over "extreme medical neglect" they have allegedly received at the Adelanto facility, Dudzic said.
The suit alleges that immigrants in ICE custody are "subjected to horrific, inhumane, punitive, and unlawful conditions of confinement" and specifically that Segovia-Benitez was not given proper care for cardiac issues. It also alleged that his combat PTSD had become "unmanageable" since being detained by ICE.
"Jose, as a disabled combat veteran, has the right to be treated by the VA and credentialed VA doctors," Dudzic said. "Whomever they're bringing in has no idea how to treat a combat veteran."
Vicky Waters, a spokesperson for the California governor's office, said she was unable to discuss individual pending applications for pardons but "can assure that each application receives careful and individualized consideration." Haley said she was unable to comment on the pending litigation against ICE.
'They'll execute you'
Dudzic emphasized that she and Segovia-Benitez's family believes his case is more of a veterans' issue -- and the failure of the government to properly care for him after his service -- rather than an immigration issue.
"Deporting veterans is the most unpatriotic thing I have ever heard of," she said.
Her organization has taken such an interest in Segovia-Benitez's case because of the potential danger that awaits him in El Salvador, Dudzic said. Due to his military training, Segovia-Benitez is a "very high-valued target for the gangs."
"You either join the gang, or they'll execute you," she said.
Dudzic also worries about his tattoos -- which include the letters "USMC" on one of his biceps and a "very large" Statue of Liberty on his rib cage -- and the message they will send.
"In countries like El Salvador, your tattoos are very much affiliated with what gang you are with," she said. "They don't take kindly to United States Marines."