TIJUANA, MEXICO — Glum immigration officers do not ask deportees if they are veterans when they herd them on to that one-way southbound bus. They do not care if the men are Vietnam War heroes, Desert Storm amputees or PTSD sufferers who battled Al-Queda in Afghanistan.
Out they go, honorably discharged veterans deported in a less-than-honorable end to their lives in America.
Most never return. Those who do, return in a box for burial at a military cemetery with full honors.
Irony abounds for the United States military veterans dumped like spent ordinance in this scarred and hungry Mexican border city.
Hundreds — maybe thousands — of honorably discharged veterans have been dishonorably deported to a country they never lived in and have no connection to. Tijuana’s makeshift shelters, mean streets and filthy riverbed are peppered with U.S. military vets, a sordid secret some borderlands Congress members call a national disgrace.
Since World War II joining the military has been a fast track way for immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens. About 8,000 non-citizens enlist annually. It is possible for most non-citizen military members to become naturalized by the time they leave basic training.
Naturalization, however, is not automatic, leaving many honorably discharged veterans without citizenship. Matters got worse in 1996 when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, stripping federal immigration judges of their ability to take military service, family or time in country into consideration in immigration hearings.
Hector Barajas, a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was deported in 2004. He said since passing the 1996 law, the U.S. has been deporting veterans who previously held legal permanent resident status.
“Before ’96, judges and the courts would go out of their way to not deport somebody if they served in the military,” he said. “Basically (the law) took away the discretion of the federal judges and anybody who breaks the law will be deported if they are not a naturalized citizen.”
Barajas founded “The Bunker,” a safehouse and shelter for deported vets in Tijuana. Resembling a homemade military outpost, the Deported Veterans Support House is adorned with American flags and pictures of their fallen brothers. It is a small, two-story command center established to lend support to deported veterans who find themselves south of the border.
“First for all, this is a place where you can stay,” he said. “Second, it’s a place where we’ll help you get your ID, we’ll help you get a job. You have counselors if you need help. You have a place to make phone calls, talk to your family.”
Though Barajas is a patron saint to deported veterans, he admits he has not always been an angel. In 2002 someone in a vehicle he was riding in fired a gun. Nobody was hurt in the incident, but Barajas and the other people in the car were arrested. Barajas and the others all pleaded guilty to illegal discharge of a firearm. He served two years in prison before being deported to Mexico.
Barajas had never lived in Mexico as an adult. He was homeless, broke and could barely communicate. He said he deserved to be punished for what he did, but not thrown out of the country he risked his life for.
Barajas said the scenario would have played out differently had he received citizenship during his military service. He confessed to not understanding the complicated process as a 20 year old. Though the process improved, he said, there is still no directive for commanders to walk non-citizen members through the naturalization process.
“It’s not like this is protocol for all the U.S. Army that every non-citizen has to, in three months, do this and do that,” he said. “It boils down to chain of command.”
Jaime Orozco Uranga, 55, said his immigration status was never an issue while he served in the Army from 1981-84, but it is now as a deported veteran.
A green card holder, Orozco Uranga said he was accused of domestic violence in 2000 after serving in South Korea and being honorably discharged. Though his partner at the time told the judge no crime was committed, he said, he pleaded no contest. He said the judge told him a no contest plea would get him out of jail.
“Desperate to get out of jail, I pleaded (no contest),” he said. “I was waiting to get out that night and the sheriff told me ‘you ain’t getting out, you’ve got an immigration hold.’”
After his immigration hearing, Orozco Uranga said he was put on a bus for Nogales, Mexico, about 75 miles south of Tucson, Arizona. From there he said he took a bus to Tijuana to be closer to family.
Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said it requires conviction of an aggravated felony to get deported, but strict immigration laws have broadened the scope of crimes included.
“Aggravated felonies, though it sounds scary, the definition has been expanded in immigration law to very minor crimes that don’t even require jail time,” he said.
Immigration proceedings differ from regular court hearings, Valiki said, often leaving people without representation.
“In immigration proceedings you only have the right to an attorney if you can afford one,” he said. “If you can’t afford one, one is not appointed. When you combine that with the fact that immigration proceedings (happen) more often than not when you’re detained, it makes it virtually impossible to fight your case. It’s a civil rights issue. They’re denied the right to due process.”
A first offense for possession of a controlled substance or certain DUIs can lead to a life of exile in a country most veterans do not consider their own. Barajas said many of them only knew American life and are no more Mexican than they are Chinese or Saudi Arabian.
“They got here at a young age,” he said. “They grew up like Americans, doing the Pledge of Allegiance, watching G.I. Joe, listening to hip-hop, rock and roll, Led Zepplin in the ’70s. They grew up in the U.S. like anybody else.”
Orozco Uranga said he has been stranded in Tijuana for 16 years. He said prior to his deportation he had come to Tijuana only once, on a family vacation with his daughter.
“We went to Disneyland, then came down to TJ just for the night to check it out,” he said. “I never in my life thought that I would be living here. But here I am.”
Adjusting to his new life was very difficult, he said.
“I was a stranger in my own (birth) country,” he said. “At first I felt discrimination, because of my accent. I speak Spanish, but I have an American accent. I don’t hear it, but down here they can tell right away.”
Orozco Uranga said he ended up living in Tijuana shelters with uneducated, desperate people. Brought down by alcoholism and a badly mangled foot that limits his ability to work, he said he was able to get into rehab and has been sober for nearly three years. Unable to work, though, he was still living in shelters when he found out about the Bunker. Barajas heard he where he was living and invited him to stay and join the commune of former American soldiers.
Orozco Uranga said he lost half of his foot in a railroad mishap. Barajas and comrades at The Bunker are working to get him a prosthetic foot or orthopedic shoe to alleviate the pain from standing. He said another deported veteran who makes prosthetics may be able to help. Without access to Veterans Affairs medical benefits, it may be his only option.
Paradoxically, VA benefits are not forfeited by honorably discharged veterans even if they are deported. They are still eligible to receive them, but there are no VA hospitals in Mexico and they may not return to the U.S. for care. Most have to pay for medical care out of pocket in Mexican hospitals and clinics.
For Mario R., a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran, this meant waiting in a Mexican hospital without medication for 30 days to have surgery on a dislocated hip and broken femur.
He said the month of pain was unbearable.
“Now I know why they kill horses when they break a leg,” he said. “Thirty days, no morphine, no nothing. Just over-the-counter painkillers. The only time I saw the surgeon was when I had the operation. No follow up. Never saw him again.”
Vakili said access to treatment often comes too late for aging veterans.
“These Vietnam-era veterans that have been deported are really struggling medically and would be entitled to VA care if they were in the United States,” he said. “The only time (Customs and Border Protection) has ever let veterans in (the U.S.) is when they’re at death’s door. So we’ve had veterans paroled in only to die within a couple weeks because they were never let in beforehand (when they needed medical care).”
Barajas said the U.S. Embassy and Consulate do not provide help.
“The U.S. Embassy has nothing to do with us,” he said. “Once deported you lose your social security. The embassy and consulates are only for social security and citizens.”
Valiki said getting deported veterans back into the U.S. is extremely difficult. He searches, on a case-by-case basis, for errors in the original convictions, which is a low-percentage strategy.
“There are very large obstacles to do that,” he said. “Most notably, they’re deported so they can’t come in and fight their cases in court. And it’s very hard to vacate a case. You don’t just walk into court and say ‘Your honor I’d like the conviction wiped out.’ You have to identify an actual legal error.”
Honoring veterans is a popular talking point in political campaigns, Valiki said, but actual commitment to veterans by the U.S. government is weak. Bringing home veterans who have taken an oath to defend the Constitution is an issue that should transcend party lines, he said.
“I think it’s safe to say that common sense legislation on this stuff is going to be difficult,” he said. “But if there is one issue that can unify the parties, it’s got to be honorably-discharged veterans trying to get back home to their families.”
“Before 1996, this law didn’t exist,” he said. “Why not change it? We are talking about honoring our veterans, supporting our troops. At one time these men wore the uniforms and they’re veterans regardless of where they are. They should be honored. Not when they die and they are taken home in a box, buried with benefits and their VA marker. There’s no honor in that.”
California legislators are leading the efforts to reunite deported veterans with their families. On April 15 Barajas received a full pardon from Governor Jerry Brown, the first clemency of its kind. This spring the State Assembly passed a bill by Assembly Member Lorena Fletcher Gonzalez to establish a fund to provide legal representation to honorably discharged deportees.
Progress has been much slower on the national level.
Last summer, Congressman Juan Vargas of California’s 51st District introduced a trio of bills addressing three of the major issues faced by deported veterans. H.R. 6091 would track the number of veterans deported, which is not currently being done. H.R. 6092 would allow deported veterans back into the U.S. to receive medical treatment. H.R. 6093 establishes protocol for naturalizing non-citizens while enlisted.
None of the bills made it out of committee.
In March, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva reintroduced the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, which would allow deported veterans to obtain visas and return to the U.S. This bill would directly impact those veterans already deported, Vakili said.
“The Grijalva bill really gets to the heart of the problem for veterans that have been deported,” he said. “That would go a long way to reuniting these families. It’s reasonable legislation that I think can be supported across the aisle.”
For Orozco Uranga a reunion with his family would be a chance to see the little girl he took on a family trip to Tijuana so long ago, but who has since grown up. He longs for a chance to meet the grandchildren he has only spoken to on the phone.
“I have a daughter I haven’t seen in 17 years,” he said. “I missed out on her graduation, her marriage, her giving birth. I have four grandkids. I want to hold them. I want to hug them.”
Since his pardon Barajas continued the process of gaining his American citizenship that he began before any conviction. He said he plans to continue working with deported veterans at The Bunker. In April he opened another support house in Juarez, Mexico. He plans to open others in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
Barajas and his supporters insist too many soldiers have suffered too long in ditches, alleyways and Third World flophouses for minor crimes. The much bigger crime is what was done to these American patriots who were never officially welcomed in as Americans.
No soldier, Barajas said, should be left behind.