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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Immigration and drug laws can go too far

A Gulf War veteran's life is being destroyed

A Gulf War veteran's life is being destroyed by misguided policies stemming from anti-immigrant paranoia and drug-war hysteria. Credit: iStock

The soldier who fights for his country only to be rewarded with indifference or even outright mistreatment when he returns is a story familiar in fiction and sometimes, unfortunately, in real life as well.

But it's hard to think of a more outrageous example of such ingratitude than the story of Howard Dean Bailey, a Gulf War veteran whose life is being destroyed by misguided policies stemming from anti-immigrant paranoia and drug-war hysteria.

Bailey, a former New Yorker, told his heartbreaking story in Politico magazine last week, under the title, "I Served My Country. Then It Kicked Me Out." He came to the United States from Jamaica in 1989, at age 17; his mother had come here four years earlier and worked as a home health aide, saving up money so that her husband and sons could join her. (All entered this country legally, as permanent residents with green cards.) After graduating from Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, at the top of his class in math and science, Bailey enlisted in the Navy and served for four years, spending nine months at sea in the Mideast as part of Operation Desert Storm.

After four years in the Navy and an honorable discharge, Bailey settled in Virginia. He attended community college, got married, and pursued his American dream as a small-business owner -- first running a restaurant, then a trucking business that allowed him and his wife Judith, a glass artist, to buy a house.

The dream turned into a nightmare in 2010. At 6 a.m., Bailey answered a knock on the door to be confronted by 11 armed immigration officers backed up by state troopers. He was handcuffed and taken to jail.

His crime? A 1995 conviction for possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, for which he served 15 months in a work camp. Bailey, who says he was duped into picking up some packages for a casual acquaintance -- and otherwise has a clean record -- disclosed the conviction when he applied for citizenship in 2005. He was eventually told that it disqualified him from becoming a citizen, something he did not know when he pleaded guilty on his attorney's advice.

Bailey spent two years in detention, in harsh and often degrading conditions, shackled during transport from one holding facility to another and once prevented from using the restroom until he lost control of his bladder. His attempts to get a judge to review his case were stymied by laws that disallowed a waiver because of his drug conviction. Finally, he was deported to Jamaica, where he now tries to make a living as a pig farmer, walking a mile every day to haul water from the river.

Bailey's plight is a result of a series of laws passed by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s, expanding the list of offenses for which legal immigrants were automatically disqualified from citizenship and subject to deportation -- particularly for drug offenses.

There have been other horror stories of immigrants being deported to home countries they barely know as a result of a bar brawl or of public urination classified as a sex offense.

Even if Bailey's role in the marijuana case wasn't quite as innocent a mistake as he claims, the fact that he has otherwise led an exemplary life and is a veteran and a husband and father to U.S. citizens should count for something. Yet the law effectively ties the hands of judges, making even the most well-deserved leniency impossible. Any policy that results in such an outrage to humanity and common sense is overdue for a change.