They Served Their Country. Now They’re Deported.
Across the border in Tijuana, more than a dozen deported U.S. military veterans have banded together to fight for their VA benefits, and a way back to the country and their families. There are possibly hundreds of other deported veterans scattered around the world.
TIJUANA — The only way the U.S. government will allow Hector Barajas back into the country is in a body bag.
In the unfortunate event of his death, Barajas would be eligible for burial on U.S. soil with full military honors, even an above-ground inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery, if the cemetery had room and he so wished, although Barajas says he would prefer his hometown of Los Angeles.
Until then, or until U.S. policy changes, Barajas is stuck in Tijuana, nearly within sight of the country he served as an Army paratrooper from 1995 to 2001. He is also separated from his 10-year-old daughter, who lives in L.A.
Barajas, 38, was deported twice from the U.S., once in 2004 and a second time in 2009. He now now works out of a small, two-story building up in the hills east of central Tijuana. He has converted the space into a forward operating base, so to speak, called the Deported Veterans Support House, where he and about 22 other deported military veterans are working to get access to their VA benefits, legally get back in the U.S., and stay afloat in the meantime.
Barajas and the others at the support house are among hundreds of permanent residents (green card holders) who were honorably discharged from the military, but then, when they were found guilty of certain crimes, were deported back to countries that many of them hadn’t seen since their early childhood. How many exactly have been deported is not known and not tracked by the government.
“We have veterans being deported or already deported to 30 different countries right now,” Barajas said in an interview. “I got one guy in India, one guy in Poland, bunch of guys in Jamaica and Trinidad, even one in Pakistan.”
The military now naturalizes green-card service members during or shortly after basic training. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 109,000 service members have been naturalized since 2001.
But before then, when the military was lax about naturalizing service-members — and especially after 1996, when Congress passed stricter immigration laws significantly expanding the amount of deportable offenses — green-card veterans could find themselves facing deportation for charges that were only misdemeanors under state law.
For the past few years, Barajas and other deported veterans scattered around the world have worked in relative obscurity trying to advance their issue, but they got a surprise boost at a Las Vegas town hall event in February hosted by MSNBC and Telemundo, when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was asked if would work to bring deported veterans back to the U.S.
“Well, I was the former Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and in that capacity I did all that I could to expand healthcare and provide the benefits that our veterans are entitled to,” Sanders said. “What you are describing to me seems to me to be an outrage. If people put their lives on the line to defend this country, are willing to die for this country, I don’t think you deport those people.”
And on Jan. 23, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union visited the support house to look at some deportees’ cases. Depending on their individual situations, some of them may be able to petition for citizenship, post-conviction relief, humanitarian parole, or asylum.
The U.S. is under no legal obligation to allow a permanent resident who commits an “aggravated felony” to stay in the country, but not doing so rubs up against one of the country’s supposed core values: honoring its veterans.
The U.S. pays a lot of lip-service to veterans. We stand to honor them at sporting events, we have federal holidays dedicated to them, and as a country, we have promised them lifelong healthcare for their service.
“When a veteran is denied health care, we are all dishonored,” then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said in 2007. He would go on as president to fire the secretary of Veterans Affairs after whistleblower allegations of delayed care and cooked books at VA hospitals erupted into a national scandal.
But the deported veterans in Tijuana and elsewhere have no access to VA care centers, unless they can obtain hard-to-get humanitarian parole. They are entitled through the VA to some foreign medical programs, but Barajas said the benefits are difficult to access and limited to service-related injuries, unlike veteran healthcare in the U.S.
“Abroad, they either don’t qualify, or they may qualify, but there’s problems delivering the care, or the care in the country doesn’t cut it,” Bardis Vakili, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said in an interview.
For Barajas, the disparity in treatment stings worse than the old knee and ankle aches from his years jumping out of airplanes.
“When I went back the first time I had to live as an undocumented person,” Barajas said. “Every time there was a Veterans Day parade I wanted to go up there and say something. It pissed me off, but you can’t say nothing. So when I got deported the second time, I had nothing to lose. I could say whatever I wanted.”
The Deported Veterans Support House — “The Bunker,” as Barajas calls it — is a three-room, 1,000-square-foot building on a small side street just past the Instituto de Tecnologico de Tijuana. Inside is a small office with a desk, a couch, some chairs and a TV. U.S. flags, old photos, and military paraphernalia hang on the walls. On the windowsill is a wooden cross with nine pairs of dog tags hanging from its crossbar, all belonging to deceased veterans who were deported.
In a back room, there are cubby holes for the veterans who frequent the house, filled with donated items and supplies. (Barajas said the house is supported by individual donors.) Upstairs there is a small kitchen and a room with several beds and bunk beds. The bunker can sleep up to eight comfortably.
Downstairs, Barajas sat behind the office desk, wearing shorts and a loose T-shirt and fielding calls from other media outlets. He is bald and mustached and has an easy, jocular manner. He keeps his old Army dress uniform handy for photos when news outlets make the trek across the border.
Barajas’ parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was seven years old. He grew up in Compton, graduated from Compton High School. He joined the Army, he said, to get out of the neighborhood, get G.I. Bill benefits, see the world, etc.
He says he vaguely remembers the recruiter making promises of citizenship, but there was nothing on paper. Before the 2000s, and especially during the Vietnam era, he said recruiters were unscrupulous about making such promises.
Barajas graduated jump school and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. He served six years in the military before being honorably discharged. He said he received two Army commendation medals, a national defense ribbon, and a humanitarian award. While in the military, he started the paperwork to apply for citizenship, he said, but never finished it.
Barajas was out of the military barely three months before he caught a charge: illegal discharge of a firearm into a vehicle. He said he was cruising with some of his old friends in his old neighborhood, high, and one of them took potshots at a car. (“I wasn’t the shooter, but I didn’t snitch,” he said.)
He pled guilty and served two years in prison before being transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center and finally deported in 2004 to Nogales, Mexico.
Barajas illegally crossed back over the border into the U.S. and became a journeyman roofer, making $32 an hour. Then the bottom fell out of the construction industry, and the U.S. economy as a whole. In 2009, he was deported again after a run-in with the police following a fender bender.
After being sent once again to Mexico, Barajas lived in a small apartment in Rosarito, where he met several other deported veterans. Six in his small neighborhood alone. (“Can you imagine how many there are in Tijuana?” he asked.) The first version of The Bunker was run out of Barajas’ tiny two-room apartment in Rosarito.
Barajas let other deported veterans crash at his place. He found a job as a caretaker at a retirement home and, with support from his family and military friends back home, cobbled enough money together for a rudimentary budget. He had a knack, he discovered, for helping people.
Barajas started working on The Bunker full-time in 2012, after he lost his job as a caretaker. He started a Facebook group called “Banished Veterans” and taught himself HTML so he could put together a website. Besides its on-the-ground work in Tijuana, Barajas’ group scours the Internet for other deported veterans scattered abroad.
But Barajas, who struggled with drugs in the U.S., relapsed in 2013, according to an Al Jazeera America profile, losing all his money and ending up on the streets and in shelters for five months. He cleaned up, though, pulled himself back together, and in 2014 the support house moved to downtown Tijuana and then to its current, larger location.
In 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a conviction under the section of the California Penal Code dealing with “unlawful firearms activity” was not a deportable offense, because the California code does not match the comparable federal statute. Barajas is in the process of submitting his application for citizenship.
“I could go back illegally and be with my daughter, but I got to do things the right way,” Barajas said. “I don’t want to be hiding and living in fear.”
The other deported veterans were out working when I visited The Bunker in the afternoon, except for Andy De Leon, 72, who sat on the couch flipping through the television stations. De Leon’s hair is grey, and his face is deep-lined and weary.
De Leon was born in Mexico in 1943, and his parents brought him to the U.S. when he was eight or nine. De Leon served in the Army as a cook from 1967 through ’69, stationed in West Germany.
After the Army, he said he drifted from place to place and job to job: welder, truck driver, gardener, restaurant industry. Until he was 60 years old and no one wanted to hire him anymore.
Then his mother died, and he said he started using drugs to deal with depression. Police arrested him with a gram of heroin in his pocket. He did time in Soledad State Prison in California. When he was supposed to be released, he found out that ICE had put an immigration hold on him.
He was transferred to a detention center and deported to Tijuana in 2010. De Leon read about the Support House in La Frontera, a Tijuana newspaper. In January, the Support House helped him move into a new apartment a few blocks away.
“The only thing I’m trying to see is if I can get my benefits,” De Leon said. “If I get it, that will help me a lot because I’m too old to be fooling around. At least I can survive, get a little bit to eat. But if I don’t, what am I going to do? I’m going to have to hang myself from a tree or something, you know? There’s nothing here for me to survive.”
While Barajas’ group has captured media attention in recent years, national veterans groups haven’t been eager to jump into the fraught issue of immigration.
“Listen, everybody salutes their service, but to be a guest requires everyone to follow the nation’s laws,” Joe Davis, a spokesperson for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said. “We would hope though that courts would look at [their service] as additional evidence and take it into consideration before passing a ruling.”
Barajas doesn’t deny that deported veterans broke the law, but the punishment, he said, doesn’t match the crime.
“We paid our debt to society,” he said. “The whole thing is, we’re not saying these guys didn’t get in trouble, but we’re trying to find a solution so these men don’t die without benefits and without their families.”
Barajas said they once dropped a veteran with tuberculosis off at Tijuana General Hospital, the only hospital in the city that serves the uninsured, on a Friday. The doctors released him the same day. He was dead by Sunday.
In another case, they managed to obtain humanitarian parole to get an aging veteran with pulmonary fibrosis across the border to a hospital in San Diego. He died two weeks later.
And deported veterans have no support structure, besides the small groups like Barajas’ that have sprung up, to deal with mental health and substance abuse — veterans’ issues that receive considerable attention in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s connected to substance abuse, and most of its connected to the service,” Barajas said. “It’s like a domino effect.”
Sanders is the only presidential candidate so far to address the issue of deported veterans. It’s mentioned briefly in a campaign video outlining his immigration platform that features a picture of Barajas and several other veterans.
There have been a few attempts in Congress to address the issue as well. Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California and GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida introduced a bill to protect green-card veterans from being deported in 2013. House Republicans that same year voted down Thompson and Ros-Lehtinen’s attempt to add the bill as an amendment to a larger piece of legislation. The duo introduced another version of the bill this year.
“As a veteran, I understand the sacrifices our service members face,” Thompson said in a statement. “They deserve better. The brave men and women who serve in our armed forces are willing to fight and die for our nation — the last thing they should have to worry about is the immigration status of themselves or their family.”
Ros-Lehtinen, whose husband, stepson and daughter-in-law are all veterans, said in a statement that servicemembers “should not be the victims of a dysfunctional and broken immigration system.”
“This legislation would bring much needed relief to those who fight for our democratic values and the family members who support them,” she said. “We can never repay the debt of service but we can help ensure that military families are not burdened with the threat of deportation.”
And there has been sporadic media coverage, usually at least one article in a major news outlet when Veterans Day rolls around, but outside of Barajas’ bootstrap organization, deported veterans have no organized presence. Murphy and Ros-Lehtinen don’t have the pull on Capitol Hill to push through a bill on their own, and Sanders’ quest for the White House is over.
“There’s some potential from all sides of the political spectrum to rectify what we perceive as an injustice to these veterans,” Vakili, the ACLU attorney, said. “But it’s very difficult to sustain momentum when all these people are scattered.”
“Many of them have longtime ties to the U.S. and have been here since they were children. They have U.S. citizen children, wives still in the U.S., and by reason of their deportation, not only are they denied medical benefits, but families are fractured,” Vakili continued. “The ripple effect of these deportations go far beyond deportees themselves.”
On paper, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supposed to take such factors into account. In 2010, an agency-wide ICE memo instructed field agents and directors to exercise discretion on which cases to pursue, based on factors including “whether the person, or the person’s immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military, reserves, or national guard, with particular consideration given to those who served in combat.”
In a statement, an ICE spokesperson said the agency “respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans.”
“Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel,” the spokesperson said. “ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis, when appropriate, for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country. ICE specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised.”
On the morning of June 20, 2013, Clayton Gordon was with his family out in his garden in Hartford, Conn., where he grows several varieties of squash and eggplants, tomatoes, collard greens, and asparagus. His fiancé, a nurse, was getting ready for work, and his son was getting ready school. Gordon was preparing to leave for his own job as a contractor.
An unfamiliar truck was parked outside the house. Gordon’s fiancé stopped to wave at the driver at one point, he remembers.
His fiancé left, and Gordon saw his son to the school bus. Then he got in his car and pulled out of the driveway. As he turned onto the street, he noticed the truck pull in behind him.
Gordon, 40, came to the U.S. from Jamaica with his parents when he was six-years old. He served in the National Guard and then transferred to active duty in the U.S. Army. He was honorably discharged from both.
“I just wanted to serve to be honest with you,” Gordon said in an interview. “At the same time, I had a passion for cooking and knew that the military would allow me to go to school.”
After the military, Gordon got a job in food services at the University of Hartford, but his personal life was in a downward spiral. In 2008, Gordon was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Gordon served one day in jail and three years of probation, which he completed without incident.
“Probation turned my life around,” he said. “I opened my own business and started doing community outreach.”
Gordon’s plan was to help start a halfway house for women coming out of prison. A partner had bought a house in a depressed neighborhood of Hartford, and Gordon was in the process of renovating it.
As he pulled out of his driveway that morning in 2013, he noticed the strange truck pull in behind him. Two other similar trucks pulled in behind the first, and then another came out in front of Gordon. That’s when the federal ICE agents flipped the lights on their cars and boxed Gordon in. They came out, guns drawn.
“I honestly thought they made a mistake,” Gordon recalled, laughing.
There was no mistake. ICE detained Gordon without a bond hearing and stuck him in a detention facility. He was stripped of his possessions, including his Veterans Identification Card.
Inside, Gordon was a voracious reader. “I spent my whole time researching to find out if there were people like me,” he said. “I never knew there were deported veterans.”
Gordon came across the Deported Veterans Support House, and since then he said Barajas “has pretty much been my ambassador through this whole situation.”
Gordon was also part of a class-action lawsuit initiated by the ACLU challenging his and roughly 50 others’ mandatory detention. In October 2013, a state judge ruled that Gordon was entitled to a bond hearing, and he was released in November, after five months in detention. The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2014 that ICE unlawfully detained Gordon without a bond hearing. An en banc panel of the First Circuit upheld that ruling in 2015.
“By the grace of God I was able to keep my home and business,” Gordon said. “When they took me I was taking care of a $1,600-a-month mortgage. My wife and kids were supposed to lose everything.”
But Gordon still faces deportation back to Jamaica. He is appealing his removal order to the Second Circuit Court, which is essentially the end of the line for him.
“There’s no connection back to America,” Gordon said. “None. It’s a lifetime deportation. It’s exile. Exile is death. That’s how I view it when you take someone away from everything they know. That’s the only thing that’s a little bit upsetting. I’m willing to take responsibility for my actions, but to take me away from my family and everything I’ve ever known and loved?”
“I still feel proud,” Gordon continued. “I still have a flag in my yard. I don’t care. It’s a stupid law. It’s just a thing that happens. In 1996 this wasn’t happening. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess, but regardless I still love America. If they asked me [to enlist] again, I’d go again.”