Queens lawmaker calls for state action to support immigrant veterans and families

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Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and members of Staff Sergeant Alex Jimenez’s family call on Senate to pass her legislation to support immigrant service members and veterans. (Photo courtesy of Cruz’s office)

On Veterans Day, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, the family of a service member killed in action, veterans and community advocates gathered on the corner of 37th Drive and 104th Street in Corona that bears the name of local hero Staff Sergeant Alex R. Jimenez, just steps from the home where he grew up.

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic enlisted in the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and deployed to Iraq as part of the 10th Mountain Division from upstate New York. After he was captured by al-Qaeda insurgents in 2007 and listed as missing, his wife Yadelin was without documentation and deportation proceedings began. Jimenez was in the process of trying to seek legal status for his wife before he deployed but was denied due to her illegal entry.

The story of his bravery, and the plight of Yadelin, struck a chord in the nation, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security eventually granted her discretionary parole for his sacrifices serving the country. Later, Yadelin secured permanent residency.

Cruz, the chair of the Assembly Task Force on New Americans, called on the New York State Senate to pass her pro-immigrant veteran legislation that would create a program to help them secure legal immigration status for their families, and help them defend against deportation.

“This legislation provides the state’s Division of Veterans’ Services with a clear mandate to assist immigrant veterans, active enlisted immigrant military personnel and their families with assistance in obtaining legal status and ancillary services offered to our other military servicemen and servicewomen,” Cruz said. “It is unconscionable that we treat foreign-born armed forces members as second-class citizens.”

The bill is named in honor of Jimenez, whose body was discovered in 2008 after the Army captured a terrorist who led them to the sergeant’s remains.

“This is a very important day for us because our veterans defend our freedoms and in some cases, they have given their life,” Jimenez’s mother Maria Duran said. “He is always in my heart and I will never forget my son Alex Jimenez. I am here because I know he would have wanted me to be here, helping to make this program a reality, and his desire to help others can continue in his name, even though he is not here with us today.”

Since 2002, more than 139,000 immigrant service members have legalized their status, with many of them calling New York home.

The program would require the Division of Veterans’ Services to assign at least two coordinators to help immigrant service members, veterans and their families to navigate federal immigration processes and procedures to normalize their status as U.S. residents and/or U.S. citizens.

“We look forward to this program becoming a reality as we know it will help many soldiers and their family members,” said Andy Jimenez, Alex’s brother. “I know that Alex would be happy to know that if someone serves this country, and in some cases gives the ultimate sacrifice, the soldiers and family members would be able to have a clear path to citizenship via this program. Now more than ever, we should be united as one for the greater good of this country.”

Yesenia Mata, the executive director of La Colmena and a U.S. Army Reserve Military Police Specialist, explained that when a service member is deployed, the entire family bears the weight of military service.

“When a soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice, the entire family feels the loss and when someone in a military family, either a soldier or sibling or spouse, is an immigrant, the entire family goes through the insecurity or fear of possible deportation or lack of access due to their immigration status, or lack thereof,” Mata said. “I have been working with military families, mostly immigrant parents, who have children in the armed forces. There are legal channels to help undocumented military parents and yet these parents don’t know that and thus lie in the shadows of deportation. Legislation like A4660-A is a game-changer.”