De­ported U.S. vets find a bit of home, hope


TI­JUANA, Mex­ico — They call it the bunker.

From the street in this work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood, people pass­ing by the two-story house can look through the win­dow and glimpse a peace sign and var­i­ous it­er­a­tions of the Stars and Stripes.

The for­mal name is em­bla­zoned in English on a ban­ner above the en­trance: “De­ported Veter­ans Sup­port House.”

It’s a meet­ing venue, crash pad, in­for­ma­tion hub and hang­out for a dis­tinct group: U.S. mil­i­tary veter­ans ex­pelled from the very coun­try they served.

Most went to the United States as chil­dren and be­came per­ma­nent le­gal res­i­dents be­fore join­ing the mil­i­tary. But after re­turn­ing to civil­ian life, they com­mit­ted crimes that led to de­por­ta­tion.

Ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants say there may be thou­sands of de­ported veter­ans now scat­tered around the globe.

Hec­tor Bara­jas, who founded the sup­port house four years ago, has iden­ti­fied 350 de­ported U.S. veter­ans born in more than 30 coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia, Italy, Mex­ico and the na­tions of Central Amer­ica. Scores have passed through the sup­port house.

The veter­ans there speak English like Amer­i­cans, rem­i­nisce about school days back in the United States, watch U.S. sports on tele­vi­sion and share war sto­ries. Thanks­giv­ing and the Fourth of July are big hol­i­days for them.

All have fam­i­lies in the United States. Many veter­ans carry wal­let-size snap­shots of sons, daugh­ters, sib­lings and grand­chil­dren from whom they are now sep­a­rated.

Still, the vibe at the house is not self-pity or re­gret but re­pen­tance for mis­steps and a quest for re­demp­tion.

The veter­ans are well aware that there is lit­tle sym­pa­thy in the U.S. for ex-con­victs. But they ar­gue that they have done their time, paid their debts to so­ci­ety and are now serv­ing what amounts to life sen­tences — per­ma­nent ban­ish­ment from the coun­try they re­gard as home.

“Ev­ery­one makes mis­takes, some big­ger than oth­ers,” said Bara­jas, 40, a for­mer para­trooper in the Army 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion. “But some people can’t get past that you did some­thing wrong.”

Con­victed of a felony in 2002 for shoot­ing at a vehicle with people inside — no­body was hurt — he served 13 months in prison and was paroled.

He was de­ported in 2010, one of tens of thou­sands of im­mi­grants with crim­i­nal records ex­pelled by the U.S. gov­ern­ment in re­cent years in a trend that has con­tin­ued with the ar­rival of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For­eign na­tion­als have long been part of the na­tion’s mil­i­tary, rec­og­nized for valor go­ing back to the Revo­lu­tion­ary War. Al­though ser­vice can stream­line the cit­i­zen­ship process, it does not guar­an­tee it — con­trary to the pop­u­lar per­cep­tion.

Even many of the veter­ans as­sumed that they had be­come cit­i­zens after en­list­ing and that they were pro­tected from de­por­ta­tion.

“I al­ways felt like I was a cit­i­zen. It didn’t seem to make any dif­fer­ence,” said Bara­jas, who was 7 when his fam­ily took him to Cal­i­for­nia to live in Gar­dena and later Comp­ton.

Im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates have crit­i­cized the mil­i­tary for not be­ing more prompt in push­ing through the pa­per­work for nat­u­ral­iza­tion. The Pen­tagon has im­proved the process since the Iraq War, en­cour­ag­ing ap­pli­ca­tions dur­ing ba­sic train­ing and set­ting up cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies over­seas.

Oddly, many de­ported veter­ans are still el­i­gi­ble for pen­sions, though those can be dif­fi­cult to claim from abroad. One of the veter­ans who uses the sup­port house, 73-year-old An­dres De Leon, once went home­less in Ti­juana. He now re­ceives a $1,000-a-month check from the Veter­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Other ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing med­i­cal care and coun­sel­ing, are even more dif­fi­cult to ac­cess or sim­ply not avail­able out­side the United States.

The sup­port house, just across the Cal­i­for­nia bor­der in Ti­juana, tries to fill at least some of the gaps. Some veter­ans just show up. Oth­ers make con­tact through so­cial media, email or tele­phone. All hold out a hope to re­turn to the United States, how­ever faint.

The house’s mis­sion state­ment is “to sup­port de­ported veter­ans … on their path to self-suf­fi­ciency by pro­vid­ing as­sis­tance in the realms of food, cloth­ing, and shel­ter as they ad­just to life in their new coun­try of res­i­dence.” Do­na­tions cover a bud­get of about $1,000 a month, Bara­jas said.

The ground floor is a clut­tered of­fice and re­cep­tion area that looks like an off­beat VFW post, with U.S. flags, photos of men in uni­form, framed com­men­da­tion let­ters, bul­letin boards, fil­ing cab­i­nets, books, fold­ing chairs and a couch.

On a re­cent swel­ter­ing Sun­day, a shirt­less Bara­jas set up a grill on the side­walk out front and slapped on some steaks.

There are two bed­rooms, where newly de­ported veter­ans can stay for a few days or longer, shar­ing chores as they track down birth cer­tifi­cates and ac­quire Mex­i­can iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments, find places to live and make the wrench­ing tran­si­tion to a coun­try that few of them rec­og­nize.

“I con­sid­ered my­self Amer­i­can,” said Ale­jan­dro Gomez, 50, who was born in Mex­ico and taken to Oak­land when he was 6 months old. Like oth­ers in­ter­viewed, he said he had long been a U.S. le­gal res­i­dent — holder of a green card — but never felt the need to ob­tain U.S. cit­i­zen­ship, which would have been rel­a­tively easy.

Gomez said he joined the Marines out of high school be­cause he liked John Wayne war movies and two of his un­cles had served in the Corps. “No­body messed with them,” he said. “And I wanted to be like that.”

A Marine re­cruiter told him not to worry about cit­i­zen­ship be­cause join­ing would re­solve the mat­ter, Gomez said.

“I thought I was be­com­ing a cit­i­zen,” he re­called. “I took the same oath. … Never once when I was in the Marine Corps was I ap­proached about be­com­ing a cit­i­zen.”

Gomez never went to war, but after leav­ing the Marines, he found it hard to ac­cli­mate to civil­ian life. He set­tled in San Diego, where he ac­knowl­edges mak­ing some “bad de­ci­sions.”

He was con­victed in 1996 on a drug charge. That led to his de­por­ta­tion in 2010 when U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents in­ter­cepted him at work in San Diego County. Left be­hind, he said, were a wife and two U.S.-born chil­dren.

He and other de­por­tees typ­i­cally get by ini­tially on sav­ings and later on cash earned from var­i­ous jobs — of­ten as con­struc­tion work­ers or se­cu­rity guards, or at tele­mar­ket­ing firms and other com­pa­nies seek­ing English speak­ers.

“You find what work you can,” said Jose Manuel Ortega, 47, a Navy vet­eran.

When he was 11 months old, he said, his fam­ily took him from Mex­ico to live in Ulysses, Kan., where his fa­ther earned a liv­ing clean­ing live­stock cor­rals. He later be­came a truck driver in El Paso and a fa­ther to three U.S.-born chil­dren. His de­por­ta­tion arose from an assault case in­volv­ing an El Paso po­lice of­fi­cer, he said.

The house in Ti­juana has be­come a fo­cal point for a fledg­ling move­ment. Sev­eral veter­ans, in­clud­ing some in mil­i­tary dress uni­forms, gather on week­ends in a park near the bor­der fence, pub­li­ciz­ing their plight while hawk­ing T-shirts em­blazed with the motto: “Bring De­ported Veter­ans Home.”

In June, a del­e­ga­tion from the Con­gres­sional His­panic Cau­cus paid a visit to the house and vowed to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion to aid the stranded veter­ans. Past con­gres­sional ef­forts have gone nowhere, and there is lit­tle rea­son to think that will change now.

In April, Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown par­doned Bara­jas. “He has shown that since his re­lease from cus­tody, he has lived an hon­est and up­right life, ex­hib­ited good moral char­ac­ter, and con­ducted him­self as a law abid­ing cit­i­zen,” the par­don said, cit­ing his mil­i­tary ser­vice and work with the veter­ans in Ti­juana.

Bara­jas is hope­ful the par­don will help him win U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. He and some oth­ers are re­ceiv­ing as­sis­tance from the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, which has de­plored the fate of de­ported veter­ans.

One vet­eran the sup­port house re­ferred to the ACLU is Daniel Tor­res, 31, a for­mer Marine lance cor­po­ral who served in Iraq.

He was born in Ti­juana and his par­ents took him to Salt Lake City as a child and raised him there. He played foot­ball and be­came a Me­tal­lica fan.

Un­like many other veter­ans in Ti­juana, how­ever, he never at­tained le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dence sta­tus. He was never con­victed of a crime.

With no le­gal pa­pers and few job prospects, he used a false birth cer­tifi­cate to en­list in the Marines in 2007, he said.

Back from Iraq, Tor­res hoped to re­de­ploy to Afghanistan. “I was good at be­ing a grunt,” he said.

But the mil­i­tary dis­cov­ered his sta­tus.

“Are you le­gal, dude?” Tor­res said his stunned staff sergeant asked him.

But Tor­res was not pros­e­cuted for en­list­ing un­der false pre­tenses and was dis­charged hon­or­ably in 2011.

Still crav­ing the mil­i­tary life, Tor­res went to Paris and tried to join the French For­eign Le­gion. But hear­ing loss suf­fered in Iraq dis­qual­i­fied him. Tor­res re­turned to Ti­juana, where he has fam­ily, and be­gan study­ing law. An ACLU lawyer in Los Angeles took up his case.

It turned out that Tor­res qual­i­fied for U.S. cit­i­zen­ship un­der a sec­tion of nat­u­ral­iza­tion law for those who served dur­ing wartime. He could have started the nat­u­ral­iza­tion process from the day he joined the Marines.

On April 21, 2016, five years after leav­ing the United States, Tor­res took the cit­i­zen­ship oath in San Diego. Now he is plan­ning to move back to the United States to at­tend law school and even­tu­ally help other veter­ans like those at the sup­port house.

“Th­ese guys are stay­ing clean, they have cre­ated a veter­ans com­mu­nity here, they are fight­ing to go back home — all they need is some­one to give them a hand,” Tor­res said over lunch with other veter­ans. “They are get­ting pun­ished twice for the same crime. OK, de­port them for five or 10 years, I get that. But a life sen­tence? It’s not right.”

In fact, many of the de­ported veter­ans do have one sure op­tion for com­ing back to the United States.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment will honor a mil­i­tary ben­e­fit and pay to bring back their bod­ies for burial in a na­tional ceme­tery.

Los Angeles Times/GARY CORONADO

Hec­tor Bara­jas sits in his of­fice at the De­ported Veter­ans Sup­port House in Ti­juana, Mex­ico. “Ev­ery­one makes mis­takes, some big­ger than oth­ers,” said Bara­jas, 40, a for­mer para­trooper in the Army 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion.

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