This is the tale of two Hectors. Two U.S. military vets. Both lived in the United States for many years as immigrants from a young age. Both were deported. One made it back. One hasn’t.
Many Americans probably don’t know it, but the U.S. deports military veterans. Though it’s difficult to determine exactly how often, it happens. That’d be bad enough if we hadn’t also spent many years dangling the prospect of citizenship before these same immigrants before yanking it away from them after putting their lives on the line for this country—their country.
I met two such men, including the first Hector, on a day trip to Tijuana. I stumbled upon the Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Center, scarcely a football field away from the U.S./Mexico border. I was walking along Calle José María Larroque when I saw their sign out on the sidewalk, so I ducked into the modest space. Inside I met Luis Vargas Salazar and Hector “Hex” Lopez. Salazar served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Beirut, Lebanon, and Grenada. Lopez served in Grenada, too. Both men served as what are sometimes referred to as “green card soldiers.” Both men were deported.
Lopez founded the Center. If you visit their office address via Street View on Google maps right now, you can see a fuzzed-out image of a man in a black T-shirt standing in the doorway. That’s Lopez.
Lopez tells the story of his life every day, and he told it once again when I met him. He says he was in the Reserves from 1982 to 1988 and was activated during the Invasion of Grenada. He told me later via email he was deported for “several nonviolent drug possessions” specifically involving marijuana. Elsewhere, you’ll find that he was convicted of selling pot to a police officer, spent four years in jail for that, two more in a detention center, then was stripped of his green card.
We can argue whether a resident of the United States—who has earned a green card, no less—deserves to be deported for this specific infraction, but consider that marijuana has now been legalized across the entire West Coast of the United States. In fact, recreational pot has been legalized in 10 states (as of this writing) and medical marijuana is legal in 33 states. Is this infraction worth uprooting someone’s life? Worth splitting up a family? And what infraction does justify deporting someone from the country they’ve considered home for most of their lives? That’s right. Many of these vets have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives.
“I was a legal permanent resident,” Lopez told me. “I spent over 40 years of my life in the United States. I am an American. I was just born in Mexico.” In a YouTube interview, Lopez described his feelings about being removed from his true home—the United States—at length.
“I’m an American. So when I got here to Mexico, it was like I landed on the moon.”
“The strange thing about it is I was just born in Mexico,” he says. “I’m an American. So when I got here to Mexico, it was like I landed on the moon. Because this isn’t my country. Yes, I was born here but I immigrated. My parents took me when I was three years old to the United States. So I’m an American. I like apple pie, football, and baseball. I really don’t like soccer or flan.”
“As veterans of the United States Armed Forces,” Lopez continues, “we deserve to be in the United States… We’re Americans and we deserve the benefits because we rightfully earned them with our service.”
Lopez points out a dark irony too: As a veteran, if he died today, he has the right to be buried in the United States “with full military honors.” But so long as he’s alive? He can’t enter the United States—not even for medical care as a U.S. veteran.
The Unified U.S. Deported Veterans isn’t the only such organization helping these displaced veterans. As Lopez will tell you, there are several deported veterans rights organizations in the Tijuana area.
In fact, I learned about the second Hector while researching those organizations.
Hector Barajas came to the United States at the age of seven and grew up in Compton, California. He graduated from Compton High in 1995 and joined the military at 17. He served in the army for four years, then re-enlisted for another three. He served for a total of five years and 10 months in the 82nd airborne.
He founded another organization to represent these displaced vets, the Deported Veterans Support House, which is also based in Tijuana. The vets who gather there for help and for fellowship, however, simply refer to it as the “Bunker.”
Barajas is pretty frank about what led to his deportation.
“Shortly after my service, I was involved in a shooting where I ended up pleading guilty to three years with half time. I ended up getting deported in 2004. Was in detention from 2003 to 2004. Fought my case and was representing myself and just lost my case. I decided I was done with being in jail and in prison and just opted for not fighting my case or appealing.”
At that point, Barajas was deported to Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora. He only stayed in Mexico for about six months, however, before he snuck back into California where he started a family. But he was deported again in early 2010 after getting ticketed in what he describes as a minor fender bender.
Barajas became a permanent U.S. resident as a teenager. He could’ve applied for citizenship but thought it came automatically with service. Yes, he was involved in a shooting—specifically, he shot at a moving vehicle. But he served his time. And yet, after living here for most of his life, after serving in our military, he was deported.
The ACLU has advocated on Barajas’ behalf, even including him on the cover of their admirably detailed 2016 report, “Discharged Then Discarded.” They worked with him and volunteers from the Bunker to document the cases of some 239 deported vets from at least 34 different countries.
Just as it was for Lopez, getting deported to Mexico was like getting sent to a foreign country for Barajas.
“You can visit India. And wow, I’ve been to India. Or even if you were born there. But you’re visiting. You’re not actually having to cope with… how am I going to work? What’s the economy? Where do I have to pay rent? It is pretty shocking. There’s a culture shock. It can be pretty traumatizing.”
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’re better off in Mexico,’ and I’m like ‘You should try living down here.’” It’s easier for some of those vets, Barajas explains, because they’re getting their pensions and can move back and forth freely between countries.
“Over the years you can get accustomed to it,” he says. “You can overcome and adapt. It’s not the end of the world. That’s one of things that we try to tell deportees. Deportation doesn’t end your life. It is traumatic, but it doesn’t end your life.”
But it’s not just the veterans who are affected by their deportation. As Barajas says, “The only thing that most deportees will never, never be able to cope with and will struggle with is getting separated from your family. That’s something that you just won’t get over.”
It’s hard to tell exactly how many veterans have been deported because the U.S. government makes no apparent effort to track it. But the Congressional Hispanic Caucus estimates there are about 3,000 instances of veterans being deported to other countries.
Certainly, the deportation of veterans continues under the Trump administration. Last year, ICE arrested a green-card holding army veteran, 39-year-old Miguel Perez, Jr., who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Perez has two children who are U.S. citizens. He had lived here since he was 8 years old. He began a hunger strike in late January to protest his probable deportation. Nonetheless, he was deported in March.
We also know that tens of thousands of immigrants serve in the U.S. military. According to Department of Defense statistics, about 70,000 non-citizen people born outside of the United States were serving in the military between 1999 and 2008. According to a 2017 report from the National Immigration Forum, about 40,000 immigrants currently serve in the armed forces and about 5,000 non-citizens enlist each year. Furthermore, as of 2016, about 511,000 veterans were foreign-born. And more than 20 percent of Medal of Honor recipients are immigrants to the United States.
The National Immigration Forum report concludes that this dynamic isn’t likely to change. The 18-to-29-year-old age range is the most likely to enlist, and in the coming years, the net growth in that group will come primarily from immigrants and their children.
Further, as the Forum notes, tens of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who came here as children would probably serve in the U.S. military if they were allowed to. In fact, if Congress had passed the DREAM Act, a 2010 study estimated, some 70,000 young people would have been potential enlistees. The report concludes, “It is clear why military leaders at the highest levels have urged Congress to pass such legislation.”
Why doesn’t the U.S. military ensure that immigrants are presented with accurate facts on the possibility of their path to citizenship?
Those immigrants who can enlist in the U.S. military are often promised fast-tracked access to a green card. In reality, however, most of these vets neither apply for nor attain citizenship. Many of these enlisted immigrants will tell you they were promised citizenship by recruiters or that their paperwork has at least been initiated. Many even believe they attained citizenship simply by enlisting and swearing to defend the United States. So why doesn’t the U.S. military ensure that immigrants are presented with accurate facts on the possibility of their path to citizenship? Where’s the support system developed to ensure they complete each step when it’s available to them?
In the Forum report, Margaret Stock offers some resounding criticism for the government’s handling of these immigrant veterans. A retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and former professor at West Point, Stock says the government has developed an “extremely complex and often arbitrary system of immigration laws and regulations without full attention to the detrimental impact that this system has on the readiness of the U.S. armed forces.”
We have a long history of offering citizenship in exchange for service. You can go all the way back to the American Revolution and the Civil War to find examples of immigrants serving in the U.S. military with distinction. Immigrants accounted for 20 percent of Union soldiers, mainly German and Irish. In World War I, some 500,000 immigrants served in the military and some 192,000 of those vets were given citizenship after the war. They’ve continued to serve in large numbers ever since.
Lately though? The U.S. has been making it harder for these vets to achieve citizenship.
Where previously immigrants could qualify for expedited naturalization after completing a single day of service, now under the Trump administration, they’re not eligible to apply until they’ve completed 180 days of active duty or a year of reserve duty.
Also, the DACA program gave papers to the foreign-born children of undocumented immigrants, allowing them to live and potentially work in the United States. Some 820 of those recipients are serving in the military or have signed up to do so. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has attempted to end DACA, which would also likely end any path to citizenship for those particular vets. Defense Secretary James Mattis told those enrollees not to worry about losing their status. Now, he’s parted ways with the Trump administration.
“Millions of people have been deported. Rarely do you ever get to go home as a citizen.”
The Department of Defense shut down the MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) program, which fast-tracked immigrant vets with special skills for citizenship, particularly language experts and medical professionals. After a successful nine-year run, the Obama administration directed the military to give MAVNI recruits additional screening. That action effectively ended the program: The screening process took so long that no recruits have been admitted since October 2016. As a result, some 1,000 immigrant recruits waited, their futures in the military uncertain and a clear path to citizenship now blocked. By late 2017, the Trump administration put an end to all background checks, bringing the program to a complete halt. That means those applicants may more likely become deportees than enlistees.
Some accuse the Pentagon of using national security as an excuse to shut down MAVNI, as just one among a flotilla of ways to keep foreign-born people out of the military—and the United States. As an Army reservist, Margaret Stock helped develop MAVNI and now represents immigration cases for veterans, which sometimes involve the program. Her evaluation of this shutdown? “They are using this excuse of national security to get rid of people because no one is going to question it,” she told The Military Times.
It’s not just the vets themselves affected. As Newsweek reported in July, requests for protections of veteran family members (spouses and children) have been denied at twice the rate under the Trump administration than the previous fiscal year under President Barack Obama.