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Agustin Abarca, left, is greeted by his son Juan after receiving citizenship in San Ysidro, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
Agustin Abarca, left, is greeted by his son Juan after receiving citizenship in San Ysidro, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (Ana Ramirez, The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Deported Army veteran Agustin Abarca walked onto U.S. soil for the first time in about nine years on Thursday morning.

The 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran waved a small American flag from his citizenship ceremony as he exited the San Ysidro Port of Entry into San Diego. His youngest son, Juan Abarca, 36, yelled in celebration and hugged him tightly.

“I’m a citizen now,” the older Abarca said with a grin. “I don’t know what to say. I’m very happy.”

Abarca is the latest U.S. military veteran to be allowed back into the United States after being deported, thanks to advocacy and legal groups that have been working on the issue for years. The process is lengthy and often inconsistent from case to case, according to Abarca’s attorney Helen Boyer, who has helped five deported veterans return to the United States permanently.

The Biden administration has said that it wants to clarify and streamline the process for bringing back deportees who served in the U.S. military, but those efforts are still in the beginning stages. In the meantime, groups like Public Counsel, where Boyer is employed, are working case by case through a maze of federal agencies to bring deported veterans back.

“There’s a lot of energy from the Biden administration to support deported veterans. We’ve been really excited about that energy and about all the initiative and drive to support deported veterans, but it doesn’t play out for individual clients,” Boyer said. “There’s still a lot of the struggle to make these (citizenship) interviews happen.”

The American Civil Liberties Union documented cases of hundreds of deported veterans in a 2016 report. In order to serve in the military, immigrants typically have to have green cards, and they are then eligible to naturalize because of their service.

But immigrant service members don’t automatically become U.S. citizens. And if they don’t go through that process and are later convicted of certain crimes — in Abarca’s case, a voluntary manslaughter conviction — they can find themselves deported from the country they served. In many cases, trauma or other lingering mental health concerns from their time in the military leads to substance abuse and other crimes.

Like many, Abarca had a tough time in his first years after the military. Motivated by his family, he was able to stop the behaviors that got him into trouble, but not before they affected his immigration status.

He first came to the United States from Mexico in 1963 when he was a teenager, and he met his wife working together in fields in Ventura County.

They married a year later, right before he left for the Army. Their first son was born while he was in the military, and they had three more after he returned home.

In the aftermath of his service, he started drinking heavily, which contributed to the incident that led to his deportation, according to his attorney Helen Boyer.

“Like so many folks leaving the military, he struggled with reentry to civilian life,” Boyer said.

In 1979, Abarca was in a bar fight. According to his naturalization application, Abarca pulled out his gun because he was concerned for his safety and told everyone to leave him alone as he left the bar. The man who had fought him pursued him to the parking lot to try to take the gun, and during their ensuing struggle, the gun went off. Abarca did not learn until after he left that the man had died.

Abarca fled to Mexico but decided to turn himself in for prosecution in 1986. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and served three years in prison before being transferred to immigration detention. He was deported in 1990.

“It’s difficult and stressful not to be able to be with family or to be in the country where I spent more than half my life,” Abarca said in Spanish. “I felt humiliated to be deported after serving in the military. I felt like the government didn’t want me.”

He snuck back into the United States to be with his family and was again deported in 1999 and 2012. Since then, he has lived in Tijuana. His wife has traveled back and forth constantly to split her time among him, their three sons’ families in Oxnard and their youngest son’s family in Las Vegas.

“The first thing I want to do is see all of my children and grandchildren,” Agustin Abarca said shortly before his citizenship interview. “Then I will focus on rebuilding my life again.”

Rosalba Abarca said that her time in Tijuana has been difficult because they were living there alone. They don’t leave their home in Playas after 6 p.m. because they’re too afraid, she said. When her husband had surgery, her car and purse were stolen while she was by herself.

She worried about the level of medical care that her husband received in Tijuana. As a veteran and a retired member of a longshoreman union, Abarca is supposed to have certain health care benefits. But, he can’t access the services from either of his former employments while living in Tijuana.

Rosalba Abarca said she also worried about having to leave her husband alone while she visited their children, particularly when the youngest son was in a motorcycle accident that left him hospitalized for about a month and amputated his arm.

For Juan Abarca, his father’s ability to cross into the United States is a chance to make up for the time that the older Abarca has been unable to spend with the youngest of the grandchildren — Juan’s 7-year-old son.

Juan Abarca recalled the big family gatherings that used to fill his life, games of dominoes and loterIa.

“He was the quarterback of our family,” Abarca said. “He’s the happiest when he’s with his family, and we’re all the happiest when we’re all together.”

On Thursday morning, Agustin, Rosalba and Juan Abarca met with Boyer at UNIFIED U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center near the border in Tijuana. A group of deported veterans joined them.

Agustin Abarca said he was nervous, that he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.

Before the group escorted him to his appointment, they held hands in a prayer circle.

“You ready to go get a cheeseburger?” joked Felix Peralta, a deported Army veteran who also lives in Tijuana. The group laughed and began the short walk to the border.

Shortly before 9 a.m., he hugged his family and friends and walked with his attorney into the San Ysidro Port of Entry for a citizenship interview. He passed and was sworn in.

Rosalba and Juan crossed to the San Diego side to wait for him. She and Juan updated their loved ones by phone.

“Oh my God, so much waiting,” Rosalba Abarca said, her hand clutching her chest, “but thanks God.”

She and Juan thought ahead to what would have to happen now, the slow process of moving Agustin’s life back after nine years away.

“This is what we wanted,” Juan Abarca said. “Now we can start that process together. He’s home now.”

Then the family decided to cross back south to celebrate with the deported veterans still in Tijuana.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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