Deported From The Nation They Fought For, Veterans Hope Biden Will Welcome Them Back
José Velasco came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. As a green card holder, he was drafted during the Vietnam War era. But after he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, he was deported three years ago. Now at age 76, he's living in Tijuana.
“I never even knew Tijuana," he said. “I didn’t have anybody here. So that’s what happened. I’m still here. I felt like the sky was coming down on me. Bad.”
Velasco is one of hundreds - or perhaps thousands - of former U.S. service members who are trying to get back to the country where they served and lived most of their lives. Wheelchair bound, Velasco is waiting for back surgery for an injury he said is most likely related to his service. He knows the clock is ticking for him to find a way back to the U.S., where he would be eligible for care at a VA hospital.
For now, he’s getting by in Tijuana with the help of Hector Barajas, who runs the Deported Veterans Support House, nicknamed the Bunker. It’s part shelter, part advocacy group.
The cluttered walls are lined with mementos from U.S. senators and members of Congress who have visited - along with American flags, paintings of deported veterans, shadow boxes with medals, and pictures of families.
Barajas was deported himself, but was able to become a citizen after he was pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown in 2018. Like many troops, he started the citizenship process while he was still in the Army during the first Gulf War, but he didn’t finish. He said no one really talked about the naturalization process while he was serving in the 1990s.
“Immigration never came up, not even from my squad leaders,” he said.
Military service can be a fast track to citizenship, especially for people who served during eras that are classified as wartime. The includes everyone who served after September 11, 2001. Some deported veterans said recruiters or other military authority figures had incorrectly assured them that they automatically became U.S. citizens as soon as they took the military oath.
In fact, the naturalization process requires multiple forms and hearings. And even some service members who began that process lost track of it as they moved from base to base or were deployed overseas.
Barajas said the system has been broken for years, but things became particularly difficult under the Trump administration.
“The Administration took away this policy that was in place that made it easier to become a citizen when you're in the military," he said. “And so now it's better if you file for your citizenship when you're out of the military. It's faster.”
Richard Avila has been in Tijuana since 2011, after being deported because of a felony immigration charge. He came to the U,S. as a child and volunteered to join the Marines at the tail end of the Vietnam era.
Avila said he doesn’t want to get comfortable in Tijuana, despite being in the city for a decade. He keeps only a couple of folding chairs, a TV and a bed in his small apartment. He said his home is in the U.S.
He speaks Spanish with a thick American accent, and because of that, he said some Mexicans look down on him.
"The word is 'pocho," he said. "It's kind of a derogatory term, meaning that you’re Mexican raised in America. In other words, kind of like a traitor."
Advocates are asking the Biden administration to reverse policies that make it harder for troops to apply for citizenship. They want the Defense Department to reinstate a program that walks service members through the process before they leave boot camp.
Jennie Pasquarella with the ACLU of Southern California also wants a moratorium on deporting veterans and an initiative to help those who've already been deported.
“Create a pathway so that they can return home,” she said. “That's where I think the administration could adopt a policy or a process that would allow for a revisiting of those cases, reopening their immigration cases.”
For some, any change has already come too late.
Former Marine Erasmo Apodaca died of a heart attack in Mexico while waiting to return to the U.S. for a second immigration hearing. He fought his deportation for more than a decade, only to die less than two months before his case would be heard.
“We never imagined that my brother would have ended up deported as a veteran to Mexico without being able to return to where we were all at," said his sister, Norma Apodaca. "My parents, my brothers, we’re all here in the United States."
All of the veterans caught in this cycle have felonies on their record. Still, Norma Adodaca said, they served their country.
“These people made mistakes. They paid a price,” she said. “They need to be given an opportunity .... not by getting rid of them."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC