Linked to a 1988 massacre in El Salvador, a Texas man is stripped of his US citizenship
Feb. 20, 2023 Updated Mon., Feb. 20, 2023 at 11:55 a.m.
Arnoldo Antonio VÃ¡squez entered the Paul Brown U.S. Courthouse where he was on civil trial for misrepresentation on his citizenship application on Aug. 22, 2018, in Sherman, Texas. (Ryan Michalesko/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
DALLAS — A Texas man has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship and deported after he was linked to human rights violations as a military officer during the civil war in El Salvador.
Arnoldo Antonio Vásquez, 60, a former second lieutenant in the Salvadoran military, was sent back to his native El Salvador this month — the result of a prosecution for unlawfully procuring his U.S. citizenship.
The investigation and prosecution, a rare one, was conducted by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit focused on human rights violators and war crimes, and by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. Justice Department attorneys brought the case forward for litigation.
Vásquez came to Texas in 1999 with lawful status and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2004. He had been living in Plano with his family.
He was accused of failing to disclose his prior arrest and detention for alleged involvement in the 1988 massacre of 10 unarmed Salvadoran civilians near San Sebastian, a village about 25 miles from the capital city, during a 12-year civil war that left 75,000 people dead.
The Justice Department, in its original complaint, noted the charges were dropped in 1990 by the Salvadoran government.
“Taking away someone’s naturalization is a very high bar,” said Terry Karl, a war crimes expert and a professor emeritus of Latin American studies at Stanford University who testified in the 2018 trial. “It has a very high evidence bar.”
In fact, the U.S. government lost the civil case in federal court in Sherman. The government won on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit when the judges reversed that decision in June 2021.
In the 5th Circuit’s opinion, the judges noted, “Although he may have refused to actually shoot civilians, we find that the former officer ‘assisted’ and ‘participated in the commission of’ extrajudicial killings during the [Salvadoran] Civil War, rendering him statutorily ineligible to assume the ‘high privilege’ of American citizenship.”
The appellate judges cited case law involving Jews and Nazis to define what “assisting” in persecution meant during the Holocaust, when actual “trigger-pulling” did not occur.
During the federal trial in 2018, Vásquez insisted he relinquished his command when he was ordered to carry out the killings by a superior officer. Vásquez said he killed no one near San Sebastian and wasn’t at the execution site.
In 1989, then-Vice President Dan Quayle visited El Salvador, which had been receiving U.S. aid, and asked that three officers, including Vásquez, be investigated for their roles in the massacre, according to trial testimony.
A key question during the trial was whether Vásquez lied on his naturalization application, which was enlarged on a courtroom monitor: “Have you EVER been arrested, cited or detained by a law enforcement officer (including INS and military officers) for any reason?”
Vásquez testified that he thought the question on the naturalization form applied to being arrested inside the U.S. He admitted to three traffic tickets in the Dallas area on his citizenship application.
Vásquez repeatedly said through a court interpreter that he was not detained or jailed in El Salvador. Instead, Vásquez said he was held in military quarters during an investigation of the San Sebastian killings but that he was able to roam about and go to the gym and eat at the mess hall.
When Vásquez applied for U.S. citizenship, his background was key in helping officials decide whether he was of “good moral character” and merited naturalization. He came to the U.S. on an immigrant visa in 1999, obtained through his wife, the daughter of a U.S. citizen, according to the U.S. government’s original complaint.
Joshua Turin, a Dallas lawyer who represented Vásquez, took issue with the appellate ruling and called it a “miscarriage of justice” and insisted that Vásquez did not participate in the killings at San Sebastian.
Vásquez, Turin said, “has been deported, separating him permanently from his wife and children, one of whom served honorably in the U.S. military and one of whom is a student at Columbia Law School. The government got its pound of flesh.” Vásquez did not immediately respond to a request for comment through Turin.
Robert Lynch, the Dallas-based interim field office director for enforcement and removals, said in a statement that Vásquez’s deportation was a “necessary action.” Vasquez’s citizenship was revoked in August 2021. He then faced removal charges in federal immigration court and was ordered removed this month, ICE said.
“His previous involvement in an egregious human rights violation completely voids his right to U.S. citizenship,” Lynch said. “With his removal to El Salvador, we have played a part in ensuring that the United States is not a safe haven for human rights violators.”
ICE said in a news release it has removed 1,100 “known or suspected human rights violators” from the U.S.
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