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Army veteran, deported to Mexico, reunites with family in California

Fabian Rebolledo, an Army veteran who was deported to Mexico in 2012, is now determined to help other deported veterans who served their country get back home.

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES (TNS)

By BROOKE STAGGS | The Orange County Register | Published: September 19, 2018

AZUSA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Wearing his black Army uniform and maroon beret, Fabian Rebolledo stood tall Wednesday on the lawn of his family’s Azusa home, happy to be back on American soil for the first time in six years.

Rebolledo has been away fighting a battle. Only this time, instead of defending the United States, the 43-year-old veteran has been fighting against the immigration system that deported him in 2012.

With help from UC Irvine Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic and other advocacy groups, Rebolledo won that battle. He got to reunite with his parents, siblings and 18-year-old son who were waiting Wednesday morning just across the border in the San Ysidro.

But Rebolledo said he’s not done fighting. Along with rebuilding his own life, he’s determined to help other deported veterans who served their country get back home.

“We fought for this Constitution, not only for our own families but for everybody in the United States so they can walk free,” Rebolledo said.

“There are a lot of veterans out there that need our help.”

From Mexico to Kosovo

Rebolledo grew up in a town south of Mexico City. His family of seven shared a small home with two beds, and he had to fetch water each day.

When he was 11, his older siblings and father came to the United States. They sent for him in 1988, when he was 13. He settled in El Monte, attending school and working at Denny’s as he learned English.

Rebolledo graduated from high school and enrolled in community college, but dropped out to help support his family. He worked in construction and at a factory making kitchen cabinets.

Then he met an Army recruiter. Rebolledo was a legal resident at the time, but he only had a green card. He says the recruiter “brainwashed” him into thinking he’d automatically become a citizen if he enlisted. Rebolledo liked the idea of a change anyway, so he volunteered to serve in 1997.

Two years later, Rebolledo was deployed on a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. He helped clear landmines and bodies of villagers killed by Serbian forces.

While he was out checking for landmines one day, a sniper shot him in the left leg. Rebolledo brushes it off as a “flesh wound” and says he begged to be back in the field the next week.

“I’m meant to be a soldier,” he said, saying he enjoyed the adventure and discipline he found in the Army.

But his time in the service also left him with post traumatic stress disorder. Rebolledo said he still wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating as he has flashbacks of what he saw in Kosovo.

Sent away

Rebolledo struggled after his honorable discharge in 2000, saying he drank to numb his pain. He ended up with two misdemeanor DUIs on his record.

But Rebolledo also had a son. He started his own construction business and worked to rebuild his life.

In 2010, he was arrested for trying to cash a $750 check that authorities said was forged. Rebolledo says someone gave him the check for construction work he’d done, insisting he didn’t know it was a bad check.

Rebolledo was immediately deported. But since he was a veteran, on the advice of a border guard, he was permitted to cross back over the border within a couple days.

He lived with his parents for two more years, working construction again and spending time with this son. But while he was driving in Baldwin Park, he was pulled over for speeding. The officer saw the deportation on his record and held him at the station, then let him go.

Several weeks later, immigration officers showed up at his parents’ home. After seeing he was a veteran, Rebolledo says he overheard the officers saying they couldn’t take him in. They told him they had the wrong man.

The same thing happened again a few weeks later. But the third time immigration officers showed up, on June 24, 2012, they took him into custody.

Again, Rebolledo was dropped off in Tijuana, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mexican town where he’d been born. He knew no one and his only possessions were $20 in his pocket and the clothes he wore.

Rebolledo slept on the street for three nights but said he wasn’t afraid. His son, Derick, who was 12 at the time, told him, “Dad you’re a soldier, you can make it.”

After hearing his plight, a stranger took him in. He lived with the woman for a few months until he found housing with other deported veterans.

Rebolledo began advocating for other people in his situation and helped create a mural project at Friendship Park in Tijuana to raise awareness of their plight. He also started working in construction again in Mexico. And he met and married his wife, Patricia.

But he never stopped fighting to get back to his family and home in California.

Several groups intervened to make Wednesday’s reunion happen. The organization Deported Veterans of America, headed up by Juan Carlos Mercardo, met Rebolledo and began fighting for him several years ago. Word got to the ACLU, and they helped connect Rebolledo with the Immigrant Rights Clinic run by the UC Irvine School of Law.

In 2015, following passage of California’s Prop. 47, a team from the UCI clinic was able to get the fraud charge on Rebolledo’s record — stemming from the $750 check he’d cashed — downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. It took three more years of paperwork and petitioning the courts, but in August an immigration judge agreed to throw out Rebolledo’s deportation case and restore his lawful permanent residency status.

When Mercardo called him two weeks ago with the news, Rebolledo said he dropped to the sidewalk in tears.

While he’s so grateful to be home, Rebolledo is now separated from his new family, since his wife, Patricia, is back in Mexico.

His attorneys are working to get his veterans benefits restored, to get his passport so he can visit his wife, and bring her to the United States. On Wednesday, as he contemplated it all, Rebolledo said it was a little overwhelming for his first day home.

“Step by step,” he said.

“But I’m excited for what’s next.”

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©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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