Since 2013, Hector Barajas has been providing shelter and counselling for US veterans who have been deported from the country they served. Hector was a legal US resident, and joined the army after a recruiter told him that military service would give him citizenship. But in 2004 he was deported to Mexico – the country where he was born – after he served time for a non-lethal crime.


In Mexico, Hector started to hear about other deported US vets. Despite their service and the fact that they had spent most of their lives in the US, they had all in one way or another violated the terms of their residency – some because of criminal records, others for failing to navigate the US immigration system. There are no official figures, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that “untold numbers” of vets have been removed from the US. Hector set up the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, to support them and raise awareness.


"It’s hard to believe that a veteran of the US armed forces can be deported"

It’s still hard for me to believe that a veteran of the US armed forces can be deported from the country. But you have to get over the shock and do something about it. That’s why I started the Deported Veterans Support House in 2013.

Hector Barajas explains how vets can know if they are eligible for VA benefits
 

The House started as a shelter for deported veterans, but now functions as a resource centre. Hector and other volunteers give vets a place to stay and provide basic hygiene items like deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste. There are two floors, a kitchen and living quarters. It can at present sleep 10 people on cots, but Hector wants to put in bunk beds to host more.

The House also helps vets get their Veteran’s Administration benefits, which they are still entitled to. They work with a team of counsellors, pastors and volunteers from the ACLU.
 
"What these guys are really looking for is stability"

People mostly come to us through word of mouth and social media. We’ve hosted about 30 people since we started, but we have a database of 312 deported veterans in 36 different countries, including Germany, Bosnia, Italy and Jamaica.

What these guys are really looking for is stability. The hygiene stuff is good, but they really need help surviving in a new country. The majority are 50 to 70 years old. A lot of them left their whole family in the US, like me. My 11-year-old daughter, my parents, sisters and nieces all live in the States.

Americans say they support the troops. But that support shouldn’t end when they take off the uniform. A lot of veterans experience PTSD. They have a high suicide rate. They need help staying out of trouble.

Inside "The Bunker". © Deported Veterans Support House


"I loved the military"

Hector was born in Fresnillo, Mexico, but moved to the US with his family at the age of seven. He grew up in Compton, California and joined the Army in 1995.

Non-citizens can join the US armed forces. The Department of Defense told France 24 that an average of about 18,700 non-citizens served on active duty from 2010-2016, or about 1.4 per cent of active duty military personnel.

I loved the military. I joined the 82nd Airborne, which is a paratrooper unit. It’s nicknamed the All-Americans. I didn’t see active combat, but we trained in medical missions: picking up and triaging the wounded.
 
I enlisted to get an education, and to get away from gang violence in Compton. But I also did it because a recruiter told me I would get citizenship. I was a green-card holder, and I started the naturalisation process. But I didn’t follow up. There was no programme or legal counsel that I saw for people in my situation. You had to do everything on your own. You file forms with the Army’s legal department, but there was nobody following up with me, saying, ‘Hector, you have to do this or that next.'

Service in the US military does not automatically confer citizenship. A 2001 law called the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) 329 is designed to help expedite citizenship applications for members of the military. And a Department of Defense spokesperson told France 24 that every military installation has a point of contact that should help service members with naturalisation.

However, neither the Department of Defense nor US Citizenship and Immigration Services gave us specific descriptions of the legal counsel given to non-citizen service members.

Not all veterans deported because of criminal records

Not all veterans are deported because of criminal records. At least one veteran is reported to have been deported after failing to attend an immigration hearing.

However, military service may not influence deportation hearings at all. The US Department of Veterans Affairs explained that “it does not get involved in immigration matters”. A 2016 report from the ACLU found that the US government did not provide adequate immigration counsel to active-duty service members or veterans, and that immigration judges were not allowed to consider military service as a factor in deportation cases.

Hector Barajas with students, inside the Deported Veterans Support House. © Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana

"The only sure way that a deported vet can be sent back
to the US is after they die"

I received an honourable discharge in 2001. I started having trouble soon after. I started drinking. I pled guilty to discharging a firearm into a vehicle, and did about three years in prison.

Immigration police picked me up before I even got out of prison. Because of my criminal record, they started removal proceedings. I tried to argue that my military service made me a US national, but the court didn’t accept my argument. I was deported to Mexico in 2004.

Mexico is a beautiful country, but life here is hard. The average pay is $5 per day. I don’t know how people do it.

I only know about one vet who has been able to go back to the US. We were able to get humanitarian parole for two guys [for medical treatment]. But they were both so sick that they died soon after returning to the US.

Right now the only sure way that a deported vet can be sent back to the US is after they die. Then they can be buried in the US just like any other veteran.

But things might be changing. There was a 2010 court case, Covarrubias Teposte v. Holder, that was similar to mine, and the person was able to successfully appeal their deportation. So I’m hoping that one day I might be able to go back.

Article written with

Avi Davis