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The ongoing plight of deported veterans

 May 24, 2023 at 3:05 PM PDT

S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Honoring veterans is one of the few subjects that can unite the deep partisan divide in the US. But not all veterans are treated equally. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of non-citizens who served in the US military have been deported , usually after being convicted of a crime after their time in the service. The Biden administration has promised to stop the practice and some vets have been repatriated to the US. But the new policy has been slow to bring home most of those deported and activists are still at work to reverse what many feel is an insult to those who served our nation. Joining me is Rob Young. He's director and producer of the documentary Bring Them Home. And Rob , welcome to the program.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Daniel Torres is here. He's a veteran of the US Marine Corps who was deported and is now a US citizen. He's featured in the documentary Bring Them Home. Daniel. Hello. Hello.

S3: Hello. Thank you for having me.

S1: And also joining us is James Smith. He's founder of Black Deported Veterans of America , based right here in San Diego. And James , hello. Hello.

S4: Hello. Thank you for having us.

S1: Now , let me start with you , Rob. Your background is in music and music videos.

S2: And as I was writing the song , I came across the story of deported veterans while I was just researching conversations of immigration , xenophobia and thinking about diversity. And while I was running through Google , I came across the story of Hector Barajas , who was a deported veteran. And when I first saw those two words put together , I couldn't believe it. I couldn't fathom that those two words could be true.

S1: Deported veteran , Right. You couldn't believe those two words could be true.

S5: It felt like two contradictory words.

S2: And I couldn't understand how the idea of a veteran who would be willing to fight for this country could be disregarded by the country they're willing to sacrifice for. So I decided to reach out to Hector Barajas , who's the founder of the Deported Veterans Support House and invite him to be a cameo in our music video. Excuse my accent. And he did. And he came with Kevin Martinez , who is another fellow deported veteran. And we got to really get to know them personally and hear their stories. And the more that we got to know , we just felt compelled to do something. And anything that we could do from an artistic standpoint to contribute to the conversation and be a solution. And that came in the form of a documentary.


S6: A lot of people don't realize how broken our immigration system is. And also a lot of people don't realize how the rules that apply for immigrants are so different to the rules that apply to American citizens.

S1: So , Rob , you know , San Diegans have actually known for years that veterans were being deported. But you've shown this film throughout the country.

S2: We find that we get a lot of emotions , anger being a prime emotion. People are baffled by the idea that this is happening. I've found myself in positions where I've been educating individuals who are in the military and working in service , and they had no idea and still have no idea that this is going on currently and has been going on.

S1: James Smith There are several advocacy groups for deported veterans. Yours is specifically for black veterans.

S4: Then they wind up going back to their particular countries , which are not right by the border. The attention when it generally is brought up about deported veterans is generally to those that are south of the border. They're in TJ or in Juarez , and that becomes the focus when you attend any of the hearings. You see the support of the Hispanic Caucus and and their leaders , but you don't see the black deported veteran. So those people that are not located in those groups that are right there by the border are often overlooked. That's how black deported veterans began.

S1: And what other countries are we talking about that non-citizens from would come and actually end up being deported ? Veterans who are black.

S4: We actually have located veterans in Kenya , Uganda , Ghana , Ethiopia , Dominican Republic , the Commonwealth of Dominica , which are two different places. Saint Kitts. Jamaica. Haiti. Trinidad Tobago. Belize. Honduras. Uruguay. Guyana , UK. That's pretty much off the top of my head.

S1: That's amazing. I just want to remind everyone , I am speaking to Rob Young , Daniel Torres and James Smith , and we are talking about the issue of deported veterans and about the documentary Bring Them Home. So , Daniel , do we know how many veterans have been deported ? There doesn't seem to be a clear figure.

S6: No , we don't know. Unfortunately , the government does not keep track of veteran status when people get deported. Our best estimates , it's in the thousands of veterans we know of at least about 340 veterans that have contacted the organizations. But there is no database that tells us exactly how many veterans have been deported. Keep in mind , this has been happening since the 1990s and before , and this is happening to every nationality in every background.


S6: There has been some forward motion on on on that front , and we're very thankful for that. Unfortunately , these are policies. They are not permanent law and policies change every four years. So unless we have a permanent solution , we are going to be facing the same issue five , six , ten years down the line.

S1: Daniel , you know , deportation for someone who's lived in this country for years is a life altering struggle.

S6: It's crushing. You know , everything that you've worked for up to that point in your life gets thrown out the window. And the majority of the port of veterans have not been to their countries of origin since they were children. And the majority of veterans , when they do get deported , they experience homelessness in cities that are some of the most dangerous cities in the world. We're talking about Juarez. We're talking about endurance. We're talking about Tijuana , we're talking about Guatemala. And it's just it's tragic that the people that fought for this country , the country's not fighting for them.


S4: It's a portal , it's on the DHS gov website. You have to go to MVP , and that's when you go to the URL. It'll take you to a website that will ask you a few questions , basically to identify whether or not you are an actual you actually are a veteran and then take the information like your a file number or your social security number , your 214 , which is your discharge from the military. And then they as a part of image , which is VA and ICE and USCIS , they then reach out to the VA to see what benefits you have , what your status of your your discharge , and make sure you're a good character as far as the VA is concerned. And then from that point , they decide whether or not they're going to offer you the opportunity to come back on what is called humanitarian parole. Now , in humanitarian parole , it's a they basically at the the most they were giving out was one year. And that was what they told us. And some people got six months. Some people got three months. It all depended upon what they said they needed to come back for. Some people just wanted to come back to get their benefits. They they they'd already have lives that they've made where they live at. So they want to stay there. They just want to wind up getting the benefits that there are. Then there are those that want to repatriate completely and get their naturalization that they thought that they had. And so go through that process and the process of doing both of those things. That is how the government is working at this situation of bringing them back. But the problem that we tend to see is that the government is not actually looking for them. They're depending upon the different advocacy groups to identify these deported veterans and then have them come through the portal as a way to begin to document their their existence.

S1: Rob , tell us some of the things you learned in making this documentary.

S2: You know , I got chills as you asked that question. When I first came into this , I came in completely blind , not only blind from the experience of deportation of immigrants , but blind to the veteran experience. So.

S5: On this journey , not only if I became very close with veterans and deported veterans. I found myself in a.

S2: Place of being able to hold space to hear their stories.

S5: Getting a close up look of what xenophobia looks like in this country , and then also getting a close.

S2: Up look of the.

S5: Challenges that veterans. Face.

S2: Face.

S5: Period , and understanding their thought processes and how deep that sacrifice is. You know , as a citizen , I think that we don't take into regard what even saying thank you for your service means. I think it's a.

S2: Way that.

S5: For us to kind of tip our hat and keep going. But the reality of service in itself , the extent of that sacrifice is unimaginable , to be honest.

S2: And so I'm.

S5: Very grateful for this. Experience.

S2: Experience.

S5: It's been I feel deeply connected to the freedom that.

S2: I actually.

S5: Live based on being.

S2: Able to hear these stories and draw deep connections with individuals like.

S5: James and with.

S2: Individuals like Daniel Torres.

S5: I also learned , which I know is an African American male , how United States is willing to treat people who built this.

S2: Country and veterans are someone who are still building out our freedom. It's a. Responsibility.

S5: Responsibility.

S2: To fight for them because they're fighting for us.

S1: I've been speaking with Rob Young , director and producer of the documentary Bring Them Home with Daniel Torres. He's a veteran of the US Marine Corps and he's featured in Bring Them Home. And also James Smith , founder of Black Deported Veterans of America , based here in San Diego. Gentlemen , thanks so much for speaking to us about this subject.

S4: You're welcome.

S7: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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U.S. Marine veteran Antonio Romo, who was deported, looks out from his apartment balcony in Tijuana, Mexico, Feb. 13, 2017.
Associated Press
U.S. Marine veteran Antonio Romo, who was deported, looks out from his apartment balcony in Tijuana, Mexico, Feb. 13, 2017.

Honoring veterans is one of the few subjects that can unite the deep partisan divide in the United States, but not all veterans are treated equally. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands of non-citizens who served in the U.S. military have been deported, usually after being convicted of a crime after their time in the service.


Rob Young, director and producer of Bring Them Home

Daniel Torres, deported veteran featured in "Bring Them Home"

James Smith, founder of Black Deported Veterans of America, based in San Diego