Jonathan (Jon) (he/him/his) will advocate for the repatriation of deported veterans through direct representation, policy reform, and coalition building.
For over 200 years, the United States has promised immigrant service members an expedited path to citizenship in exchange for their sacrifices. Yet for decades, the U.S. has failed to provide these service members with the citizenship they are due. As a result, hundreds of veterans were left subject to deportation and banished forever from their families and the country they fought to protect. Deported veterans are owed the opportunity to return home and reform that ensures service members can naturalize and no veterans are deported moving forward.
During his Fellowship, Jon will represent individual veterans’ repatriation claims to vacate their deportation orders and reinstate their legal residency. Through this, he will push for legal reform at the state and federal levels to increase access to repatriation for other deported veterans. In addition, he will help build a coalition of veterans’ and immigrants’ rights activists, legal service providers, and deported veterans themselves. This coalition will support the needs of deported veterans up to and after their repatriation. Additionally, Jonathan will work with this coalition to push the DHS to adopt policies that prevent future veteran deportations and ensure that immigrant service members can naturalize.
As the child of Mexican immigrants, I am proud to stand with this community. Deported veterans fought for this country and for their right to repatriate—we owe it to them to finally bring them home.
Jonathan Contreras /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Nicqelle serves non-citizen veterans through the process of naturalization.
Currently, 16% of veterans who apply for naturalization are denied, which is 5% higher than their civilian counterparts. According to Sections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, those who serve honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces are eligible for expedited naturalization. In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of naturalization applications and an increase in application denials. Nicqelle will help veterans through the naturalization process while striving to discover why fewer active service members are applying for naturalization and why veterans are denied naturalization at a higher rate than civilians.
Nicqelle’s family connection to the veteran and immigrant communities makes her passionate about helping non-citizen veterans through the naturalization process
Fellowship Highlights to Date
In the past year, Nicqelle has:
- Launched the Veterans Naturalization Assistance Program (VNAP)
- Provided direct representation to 25 veteran clients
- Referred clients to partner organizations that can best serve their specific needs
- Delivered 20 virtual educational presentations on the veteran naturalization process, reaching 990 attendees including veteran service officers, law school students, and volunteers
- Sent over 3,700 outreach emails to individuals working at organizations that serve veterans to increase awareness of the project and available services
- Participated in 15 coalition-building meetings to increase the reach and impact of the project
- Successfully held a virtual naturalization clinic with sponsors, which assisted ten non-citizen veterans in beginning their naturalization applications
In the next year, Nicqelle plans to:
- Develop a greater online presence of VNAP’s services
- Continue individual outreach to build relationships and educate more individuals about VNAP’s work
- Host a second non-citizen veterans naturalization clinic
- Host trainings and educational presentations to teach more attorneys and related professionals about the needs and rights of non-citizen veterans
John Paul, a veteran of the United States Army, established a model consortium of higher education institutions to aid veterans and active duty troops with medical and disability issues, reemployment, and reintegration.
Need Addressed By Project
Veterans face unique challenges as they reenter the civilian world. These challenges are compounded by the wounds that many veterans bear, both inside and out, after returning from service in combat. Too many veterans return to civilian life to face unemployment, homelessness, and involvement in the criminal justice system. While benefits and services are available to help them cope with disability and the turmoil of returning to civilian life, too many veterans fall through the cracks. Veterans’ benefits and services are often poorly advertised, difficult to obtain, and delayed for long periods of time because of the overloaded system for determining eligibility.
During his Fellowship, John Paul has:
- Developed a Veterans Initiative Program in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to assist veterans charged with petty offenses obtain the treatment, services, and benefits that they need to avoid future involvement in the criminal justice system
- Promoted the development of veterans benefits clinics at law schools across the United States through conference presentations, co-authoring written material on the topic, and assisting in the creation of a veterans clinic consortium to support the work of existing and newly established veterans clinics
- Educated attorneys, law students, and mental health professionals about the needs of military veterans in Virginia and the benefits and services available to meet those needs
- Represented veterans in claims for disability compensation benefits and discharge upgrades
Where are they now?
Now that the Fellowship is complete, John Paul will advocate for policies that promote independence, autonomy, and inclusion of people with disabilities in Virginia as a Senior Policy Analyst at the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities.
The Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) has reported that the average amount of time from the filing of an appeal of disability denial to the BVA decision is 1,407 days. In addition to already long systemic delays, potentially thousands of veterans’ appeals have been effectively warehoused by the VA Regional Offices (“RO”). In these cases, ROs have not completed the procedures necessary for the appeal to advance to the BVA for decision. The BVA is required to decide appeals in the order in which they are placed on the BVA’s docket; however, because some ROs are not certifying appeals to the BVA in a timely manner, the already long delay is protracted for some veterans. The result is that veterans who would have had their appeals decided are still waiting on a RO to complete a one-page VA Form that would move the process forward. This systemic and illegal delay causes veterans financial hardship, lack of access to VA health care, and lack of faith in the VA.
Paul provided legal services to disabled veterans whose appeals of initial disability denials have been systemically delayed for years and helped to improve the VA appellate process currently in place.
In the past two years, Paul has:
- Provided legal services to 295 veterans and placed 34 veterans with pro bono attorneys for full representation
- Assisted over 100 veterans in getting their appeals certified to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which has already resulted in benefits being granted to 28 veterans to date
- Contributed to filing a class action petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims with the goal of securing relief for all veterans suffering from delays in the appeals process
- Delivered three “Know Your Rights” presentations to inform more than 50 veterans about how to apply for a discharge upgrade
- Trained service providers working with senior veterans about services available for their clients
- Organized and conducted four discharge upgrade clinics through which nearly 90 veterans received brief services and advice
- Worked closely with sponsor pro bono volunteers who served clients in all areas of the project
Now that the Fellowship is complete, Paul plans to:
- Continue helping veterans as a staff attorney at NVLSP to assist veterans with applications for discharge upgrades
- Provide support to high impact litigation addressing the systemic delays in the VA’s appellate procedures to bring relief to thousands of veterans’ benefits claimants
- Organize and lead pro bono legal clinics to assist veterans in seeking upgrades to their discharge characterization
- Continue training and mentoring pro bono attorneys to help veterans in their legal claims against the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs
Christian eliminated legal barriers to stability and promote integration for justice-involved veterans through direct civil legal representation, outreach, education, and advocacy.
The justice system incarcerates veterans at a significantly higher rate than non-veterans, and the difficulties leading to their criminal conduct often relate to their service. The Justice Involved Veterans Project (JIVP) provides civil legal services to veterans. Today, veterans treatment courts provide treatment for some veterans in lieu of incarceration, but true reintegration requires more than avoiding jail. This project provides civil legal services that eliminate barriers to employment so that veterans leaving treatment programs can return to the community with dignity and honor.
During the Fellowship period, Christian has:
- Provided direct representation to 35 veterans seeking assistance with veteran’s benefits claims, discharge upgrades, license restoration, and appealing denials of service in the Veteran’s Health Administration
- Became the first program to provide civil legal services to the participants in any veteran’s treatment court in Maryland, where more veterans used this project’s services than any other non-VA benefit
- Advocated for alternatives to incarceration and reemployment programs for justice-involved veterans by engaging judges, bar associations, and community partners through discussions and presentations highlighting the unique positioning of treatment courts to help veterans overcome the difficulties many face when returning from their service
- Collaborated with The Veterans Consortium to host a discharge upgrade clinic at MCVET, where attorneys from Northrop Grumman and Covington met with veterans about discharge upgrades
Christian will continue to work to improve outcomes for veterans as an Attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, Christian will remain involved at MCVET as a member of the Board where Christian hopes to continue providing brief advice to residents.