Texas Veterans Battle the State for Benefits

A group of U.S. veterans is bringing a class action lawsuit against the state of Texas over education benefits. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, the Hazlewood Act grants free college tuition to veterans who are Texas residents, but a decision by the state attorney general says those benefits don't apply to veterans who aren't U.S. citizens.

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The Hazlewood Act of 1971 grants 150 college credit hours to U.S. veterans who are citizens of Texas. That means veterans who lived in Texas for at least 12 months prior to enlisting in the military, and who served their full term of duty and were honorably discharged, should be eligible for the benefits. But Houston District LULAC Director Jose Jimenez says an opinion handed down by State Attorney General Greg Abbott cites a portion of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, which defines the term 'citizen of Texas' as a person who is a citizen of both the U.S. and Texas.

"It all bases down on three simple words. The term is a 'citizen of Texas.' And the word 'citizen of Texas' is not defined anywhere in the state constitution and nowhere prior to 1995. The first time that that term was actually defined was in the alcohol beverage code. So based on those three little words, they have found a way to exclude permanent residents from receiving the Hazlewood Act benefits."

Residents do not have to be U.S. citizens to enlist in the military, but they do have to be legal residents. Jimenez points out these benefits are withheld from veterans were in the country legally and may now be U.S. citizens.

"Permanent residents, regardless of their status, serve this country just like everybody else. There should be no reason why they're being excluded. The federal government doesn't exclude them, so why does Texas?"

Former U.S. Marine Sgt. Guillermo Sanchez enlisted right after graduating from high school. He was 18 and a legal resident and says he didn't have time to complete his U.S. citizenship paperwork before being up for duty. He served in the Marines for eight years before being honorably discharged. Upon return to Texas, was told he was ineligible for the Hazlewood Act.

"You know, I didn't enlist to get any type of benefits from anyone. I enlisted to serve the country that I was living in and still living in. I am a citizen of the United States now. And I didn't do it to get any type of benefit at all. I just served to serve, and that's the only reason I ever did it. But now that I've served and I thought I had that benefit, I'd like to get it reinstated for myself."

Sanchez is one of a number of veterans joining together in a class action lawsuit against the State of Texas. The lawsuit is brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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