Discharged, then deported
Does honorable service earn noncitizen vets a 2nd chance to call US home?
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 21, 2016
Note: This article has been corrected.
TIJUANA, Mexico — On a Thursday morning in early June in this border town, 82nd Airborne veteran Hector Barajas-Varela donned his maroon beret, tucked his pants into his Corcoran jump boots — with an apology that they weren’t spit-shined — and steeled his nerves.
The 39-year-old grabbed his cane, locked the glass doors of the small shelter he runs for deported veterans and headed to the border to meet with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services official for fingerprinting.
This is a big deal for Barajas-Varela, who was deported permanently from the United States in 2009.
Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. when he was 7 and grew up in a rough, racially tense southern California neighborhood. When he was old enough, he joined the Army, which made him eligible for citizenship.
But Barajas-Varela, like many deported veterans, never followed through on his naturalization paperwork, and after serving honorably, he got in trouble with drinking and drugs. He was banished after he pleaded guilty to a felony in 2002. Since then, he has built a life in Mexico, helping others who went astray after serving. He runs a shelter and spends his time advocating to reverse the deportations — including his own.
Barajas-Varela maintains an abiding wish to return to the country he sees as his home.
That opportunity is in his sights.
“That’s the scary part,” he said as he approached the border for fingerprinting, a crucial step in getting his case for citizenship reconsidered. “I don’t know if I will get to go home, to help raise my daughter.”
For the past few years, Barajas-Varela garnered scattered attention as he built up the Deported Veterans Support House, a shelter for former U.S. military servicemembers known as “the Bunker.”
A report released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union brought the issue back into the headlines, saying that the federal government failed to ensure that immigrant servicemembers became citizens and later deported “an untold number” without considering their service.
Barajas-Varela is featured on the cover of the report, called “Discharged, Then Discarded,” and is credited by the ACLU with giving deported veterans “a collective voice whose cries are finally being heard.”
He has been encouraged by recent events.
With help from the ACLU and legal experts, deported Marine veteran Daniel Torres became a U.S. citizen in April.
The immigration service, USCIS, is considering Barajas-Varela’s application after his crime — discharging a firearm — was reclassified and is no longer an aggravated felony. He says he’s been told that immigration officials are looking at other deported veterans’ cases.
He has helped submit requests for 13 deportees — 12 veterans and a civilian who works with him and advocates for deported mothers — to receive humanitarian parole and be allowed to return to the U.S. based on a dire need for physical or mental health care.
Returning might be a long shot for veterans deported for serious crimes. But Barajas-Varela came away from his own morning at the border with an optimism he said he hasn’t felt for more than a decade.
“They are working with us,” he said after an hourlong meeting inside what he called the Golden Gates, between Tijuana and San Diego. “That’s very important. They are looking at possibilities. They said, ‘Keep doing what you are doing. It’s got our attention.’ ”
A second chance
For the deported veterans at the Bunker, their predicament has created a surprising community of felons and recovering addicts who share an emotional bond. They grappled with problems that hundreds of thousands of veterans face as they transition out of the military, particularly after service in times of war.
They made bad decisions, abused alcohol or drugs; some joined criminal gangs. All of them acknowledge that their prison time was merited. They paid for their crimes.
The question is whether their military service earned them a second chance.
Across the border, fellow veterans receive help from the government they served. But in Tijuana, these men are mostly left to their own devices.
They are a band of tainted warriors who offer each other hope.
Support comes from fellow veterans or volunteers like retired Master Sgt. Cesar Medrano, who arrived at the Bunker one day from Los Angeles with a carload of donated groceries and supplies, and Miguel Gabriel Vazquez, one of two Vietnam War veterans who offer counseling at the Bunker. Vazquez, a trained counselor with a master’s degree in psychology, practices holistic healing, using a technique called EFT that involves tapping points on the body to release emotional duress. He comes to the bunker once a week to do individual counseling.
“They all have PTSD whether diagnosed or not,” said Vazquez, who has not been deported but lives in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, where he moved to write a book on healing PTSD naturally. “These guys get all that plus the trauma of being deported.”
The men at the Bunker bond over their shared trauma and a surprising loyalty to the country that has turned them away.
“I love the U.S.,” said Tony Romo, who spent three years in the Marine Corps 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, including service during the Persian Gulf War. “I would fight for them again if they asked me to.”
One night raid in particular haunted Romo. They landed in an Iraqi field riddled with mangled bodies and stinking of death, fought a fierce battle with Iraqi Republican Guard and took prisoners.
When he got out of the military, he got married and spent six more years in the reserves as his life and his dreams of becoming a cop started to unravel. He couldn’t sleep, and said he saw the faces of those dead Iraqis.
He turned to alcohol, then drugs, and got into frequent violent fights. He lost track of years, lost his wife and children.
When he landed in prison, where he served six years for selling drugs, he got clean and started talking to the prison psychologist.
“I just kept thinking maybe to keep getting into trouble is not the way to go,” he said. “I was in the Marines. I’ve got to adapt.”
Romo got out and was talking to the Marines about re-enlisting. But his deportation was already in the works. He was deported to Juarez, Mexico, and with help from his family, he moved to Tijuana. He got a job and starting seeing a psychologist, who diagnosed him with PTSD. Romo paid for treatment out of his own pocket for six months until he no longer could afford it.
Two and a half years ago, he met Barajas-Varela and learned about the Bunker. “I thought I was here by myself,” he said.
Path to citizenship
Immigrants have served in the U.S. military since the country was formed, and for many, it has been a path to citizenship.
By enlisting in the armed forces, noncitizens can ensure and accelerate the citizenship process. It usually takes five years for a permanent resident to become a citizen, but military personnel can become naturalized after basic training if they serve during wartime.
Between fiscal years 2002 and 2015, 109,321 military servicemembers were naturalized, including nearly 8,000 last year, according to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, part of Homeland Security.
But thousands more green-card holders join the military and don’t become citizens. Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement said that while it considers each case carefully, it does not keep data on how many veterans it deports.
“ICE respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving U.S. military veterans,” spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said. “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.”
During peacetime, a servicemember can apply for naturalization after one year of service. During times of conflict, eligibility is immediate, but it still requires the person to file paperwork, pass an interview and get fingerprinted.
Early in the Iraq War, some were led to believe citizenship was automatic, said attorney Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California. Others didn’t understand the process. In some cases, with Vietnam and Gulf War vets, applications were lost, she said.
Many leave the service with none of the veterans’ benefits or protections of American citizens.
“That’s sort of the tragedy,” she said. “The story is so common — they have PTSD or mental health issues and [can’t get] the services they need to find jobs and get back on their feet. A lot end up with drug addictions that lead to criminal actions that lead to deportations.”
‘A mess of contradictions’
Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel and an immigration attorney in Alaska, believes the naturalization process for servicemembers is overly complicated. That’s part of the reason she says she is running for U.S. Senate in November as an independent.
“There’s a mess of contradictions in the law, and (only) a handful of people in the country who know the difference,” she said.
For example, she told of one client with a felony conviction who was considered eligible for naturalization and deportation at the same time — and his fate was caught in a race between the two sub-agencies of Homeland Security, which were at odds with each other.
At a minimum, the Department of Veterans Affairs should have an immigration unit to counsel veterans on getting their citizenship, Stock said.
In 2009, the USCIS created an Army program to conduct all naturalization processing at the completion of basic training, including the capture of biometrics, the naturalization interview and administration of the oath of allegiance on the military installation. Since then, the program has expanded to the other branches of the military.
The USCIS says every military installation has a designated point-of-contact, generally in the personnel division or the Judge Advocate General’s Office, to assist members of the military prepare and file their naturalization application packet. But Stock said the statute is so confusing that even the JAGs don’t always get the information right.
The Defense Department has otherwise kept out of the immigration discussion, offering data on how many people naturalize each year but leaving the decision up to individuals.
DOD officials said the department defers to the Department of Homeland Security, since DHS has the responsibility for citizenship and deportation actions.
Stock believes that Barajas-Varela could have beaten his deportation if he’d had a good lawyer. But deportees are not appointed lawyers if they cannot afford them, and many like Barajas-Varela end up defending themselves — and losing.
According to the ACLU report, in the cases they documented 73 percent had no lawyer to represent them in removal proceedings.
“I think it’s a travesty that we are deporting honorably discharged military veterans because of convoluted statutes passed by Congress that senators and congressmen don’t even understand,” Stock said.
Reps. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Ted Lieu, D-Calif., co-sponsored a bill introduced in the House in April limiting deportation against documented immigrants who serve in the Armed Forces. It also deals with readmission of deported veterans.
Lieu issued a statement in response to the ACLU report calling for consideration of the bill. “As an immigrant and a veteran ... I believe there is perhaps no greater injustice in our immigration system than the deportation of veterans,” he said.
Doing his part
Barajas-Varela served nearly six years in the Army, re-enlisting after he was injured in a jumping accident that years later has left him with severe back pain and walking with a cane.
He got an honorable discharge in 2001 after he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, referred himself for treatment and then was charged with driving under the influence.
“I messed up,” he said. “I can’t blame the military.”
In 2002, he went to prison for two years after he pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm into a nearby car. Barajas-Varela said he was surprised when he was released from prison directly to immigration authorities in 2004.
He represented himself in court, arguing that he believed he was a citizen when he committed his crime. The judge thanked him for his service and ordered him deported.
Six months later, he snuck back into California, which is a felony. He married his girlfriend, got a job as a roofer and had a daughter.
He also got involved with an activist group protesting deportations.
When an unpaid traffic violation led to his redeportation in 2009 — this time for life — Barajas-Varela stayed in Tijuana to be closer to his wife and daughter. He connected with another deported veteran and soon found work as a caregiver.
He got his own place and in 2013, through word of mouth, began offering beds to deported veterans. He stopped for a while when he relapsed. But he was determined to make good, so he got clean, started surrounding himself with mentors and created the Bunker.
“One thing I learned about being a citizen, when we live in the U.S. we take everything for granted,” he said. “Citizenship is not just being born here. It’s also civic actions. Engaging with the community, voting.”
Barajas-Varela and others at the Bunker helped campaign for Bernie Sanders — making phone calls for the only candidate who promised to soften the U.S. immigration policy.
The irony of their plight isn’t lost on Barajas-Varela.
“If I hadn’t been deported, I wouldn’t be the same person today,” he said. “I am a better person ... I appreciate my country more. I am a better citizen.
“But it destroyed my family,” he said.
In creating the Bunker, Barajas-Varela wanted to give veterans a place to land and resources — to fight deportation or get veterans benefits — and to offer them food or aid. He put in several beds upstairs and turned the backroom downstairs into his bedroom. The main storefront, draped in American flags, became the office that he shares with an advocacy group for deported mothers.
He brought in volunteer therapists, because it was clear to him that the men needed help.
“The honest truth is, I don’t think everybody is going home within the next five or 10 years,” he said. “So until these men go home, we need places. We need groups … just to have a community to help you out.”
Two months ago, the mood at the Bunker turned euphoric when one of their own received remarkable news.
Daniel Torres, 30, was getting his citizenship.
Torres’ only crime was faking his birth certificate to join the Marines in 2007. When he was caught in 2010 after his first deployment to Iraq, he was discharged from the military and went to live with family in Mexico. He got a job, enrolled in law school and hoped he would one day be able to go home to the U.S.
“I used to tell people I don’t think the United States is the best country in the world — I know it is the best country in the world,” Torres said in June. “The United States is this great social experiment of complete freedom. The freedom to pursue happiness in whatever ways suit you.”
A year and a half ago, someone told Torres about the Bunker. Barajas-Varela connected Torres with the ACLU, and he learned that he could get his case reviewed. When Torres was allowed to return to the U.S. in April, Barajas-Varela and others from the Bunker walked him to the border.
“We were all shouting for joy,” Barajas-Varela said. “We all hope we can make that same journey, that we will be able to go home.”
Torres credits Barajas-Varela with his success.
“Hector was the one getting the word out, doing the legwork, talking to the media,” said Torres, who returned to Tijuana to finish law school. “He is the one who built this place from the ground up. He’s the one standing in the sun and the cold with the signs. He’s the one making the phone calls, sending the emails, making the videos.”
Barajas-Varela is still learning as he goes. He found out just a few months ago that deported veterans are eligible for Veterans Affairs-sponsored medical care for service-related issues. But he went around in circles with them when the VA kept giving him an appointment in San Diego.
After months on the phone, a VA operator suggested to him that he officially change his address with the VA. It worked. Just a week before Barajas-Varela got fingerprinted, he saw a Mexican doctor for his back — for the first time since 2009.
The prospect of home
Vazquez came to the Bunker the day after Barajas-Varela’s big meeting at the border.
The counselor asked Barajas-Varela to describe what he was feeling. Pain in his back, Barajas-Varela said, rolling his head around his shoulders.
“What will happen if they turn you down?” Vazquez asked.
“I will be more at peace because at least I will know,” Barajas-Varela said.
And if you succeed? Vazquez asked. “Are you ready for that?”
“Then I am worried about what is going to happen here,” Barajas-Varela said.
But he will get to raise his daughter.
Barajas-Varela then followed Vazquez’ lead, tapping acupuncture points in a rhythmic motion and chanting affirmations.
“I choose to consider that I am releasing this anxiety now,” Barajas-Varela repeated after Vazquez.
“I choose to consider that it is OK to think of myself first,” he said. “The more relaxed I am, the stronger I am, the more effective I am for myself and for all the deported veterans.
“I totally and completely know that I am worthy of health and happiness and U.S. citizenship.”
Correction: A story that appeared June 22 in Stars and Stripes about noncitizen veterans being deported misidentified the unit of former Marine Tony Romo during the Persian Gulf War. Romo served with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which was Special Operations Capable.