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Deported Veterans Look To Biden Administration For Help

Norma Apodaca shows a photo of her brother Erasmo Apodaca from his time in th...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Norma Apodaca shows a photo of her brother Erasmo Apodaca from his time in the military, June 7, 2021.

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Over the past several decades, hundreds or maybe thousands of U.S. military veterans have been deported after they committed crimes, sometimes decades after they left the service.

Aired: June 14, 2021 | Transcript

Over the past several decades, hundreds or maybe thousands of U.S. military veterans have been deported after they committed crimes, sometimes decades after they left the service. Now, many are looking to the Biden Administration, hoping for the chance to finally return to the United States.

Jose’ Velasco came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. As a green card holder, he was drafted during the Vietnam War era. Charged with assault with a deadly weapon and deported three years ago, he was deported after a lifetime living mainly in the United States. Now at age 76, he's living in Tijuana.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

“I never even knew Tijuana," he said. “I didn’t have anyone here. So that’s what happened. I’m still here. I felt like the sky was coming down on me. Bad.”

Velasco is one of the former U.S. service members who are trying to get back to the country where they served and lived most of their lives. His health is declining. Wheelchair bound, Velasco is waiting for back surgery for an injury he says is most likely related to his service. He knows the clock is ticking for him to find a way back to the U.S., where he would be eligible for care at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

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For now, he’s getting by in Tijuana with the help of Hector Barajas, who runs the Deported Veterans Support House, nicknamed the Bunker. It’s part shelter, part advocacy group. The cluttered walls are lined with mementos from U.S. congressmen and senators who have visited, along with American flags, paintings of deported veterans, shadow boxes with medals and pictures of family.

Barajas was deported himself, but was able to become a citizen after he was pardoned by California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018.

Like many people, Barajas started the citizenship process while he was still in the Army during the first Gulf War, but didn’t finish. No one really talked about the naturalization process while he was serving in the 1990s.

“Immigration never came up, not even from my squad leaders,” he said.

Military service can be a fast track to citizenship, especially if you served during an era that is classified as wartime, which includes everyone who has served after Sept. 11, 2001. Some people who were later deported were told incorrectly by a recruiter, a sergeant or some other authority figure in the military, that they automatically became U.S. citizens when they took the military oath.

In fact, the naturalization process requires multiple forms and more than one hearing. Some people lost track of the process as they moved from base to base, or were deployed overseas. Barajas says the system has been broken for years, but things became particularly difficult under the Trump administration.

“It takes longer to become a citizen when you're in the military,” he said. “It’s actually easier to file for your citizenship once you leave the military.”

Richard Avila has been in Tijuana since 2011, after being deported because of a felony immigration charge. He came to the U.S. as a child and volunteered to join the Marines at the tail end of the Vietnam era. He keeps only a couple of folding chairs, a TV and a bed in his small apartment. He says his home is in the U.S. Avila said he doesn’t want to get comfortable, despite being in Tijuana for a decade. He speaks Spanish with a thick American accent which draws unwanted attention in Mexico.

“The word is 'pocho,' like I said. It’s a derogatory term, meaning you’re raised in America, you’re Mexican raised in America. Kind of like a traitor, right, because you're Mexican raised in the U.S.,” he said.

Advocates are asking the Biden administration to reverse policies that make it harder for troops to apply for citizenship. They want the defense department to reinstate a program that walks them through the process before they leave boot camp.

Jennie Pasquarella with the ACLU of Southern California also wants a moratorium on deporting veterans. And for those already deported.

“Create a pathway so they can return home,” she said. “I think that’s where the administration could adopt a policy or a process that would allow for a revisiting of those cases, reopening their immigration cases.”

For some, any change has already come too late.

Norma Apodaca remembers telling her mother that time had run out for her brother, a former Marine. Erasmo Apodaca died of a heart attack in Mexico, while waiting to return to the U.S. for a second immigration hearing. He fought his deportation for more than a decade, only to die less than two months before his case would be heard.

“We never imagined that he would be deported as a veteran to Mexico, without being able to return to where we were all at. My parents. My brothers, we’re all here in the United States,” she said.

All of the veterans caught in this cycle have felonies on their record. Still, Norma Adodaca says, they served their country.

“These people made mistakes. They paid the price,” she said. “They need to be given an opportunity, not by getting rid of them. Sending them, saying here, you’re someone else's problem.”

Though at the moment, advocates say little has changed.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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