WINTER HAVEN — Daniel Torres served in the Iraqi War as a U.S. Marine, but his undocumented status forced him to spend five years in Tijuana, Mexico, outside of the country he spent three years defending.
The 30-year-old veteran was not alone. He was one of many U.S. military veterans forced to live outside of the country they served.
"At the Deported Veterans Support House, we don't see ourselves as foreigners that have been deported, we see ourselves as Americans in exile," Torres said of the group in Tijuana, Mexico, that helps veterans.
On April 21 in San Diego, the former Marine lance corporal received his U.S. citizenship in a naturalization ceremony. He has lived as an American citizen for the past month and he visited the Young American Dreamers at the group's sixth anniversary celebration at Lake Shipp Park in Winter Haven.
Torres came to Winter Haven on Saturday to celebrate the Young American Dreamers' sixth anniversary. The community service organization has been in operation since 2011 and they celebrated their anniversary by cleaning up Lake Shipp Drive. The organization cleans the road four times a year in honor of their late founder, Maria Isabel Barajas-Martinez.
The 21-year-old student activist, who died in a car accident on Lake Shipp Drive in 2012, championed the causes of immigration reform and student rights.
Torres learned of the Young American Dreamers through the group's donations to the Deported Veterans Support House.
Becoming an American citizen "has opened up so many doors for me," Torres said. "I went from not seeing my family in five years to all of a sudden, complete freedom. I am able to come and go as I please."
Torres said many veterans are deported because of problems stemming from their service.
"The thing is that a veteran serves his time, gets out with an honorable discharge, and because of problems stemming from PTSD, alcoholism, drug addiction coming from their time in service they get in trouble," Torres said. "Instead of getting the help they need, they go to jail, serve their time and then they get deported. There are a lot of deported veterans in Mexico."
For Torres, the problem was that he could not make a living as an undocumented resident, so he moved to Tijuana, where he has family, to pursue a law degree.
While in Tijuana, Torres worked with the Deported Veterans Support House, which is run by deported veteran Hector Barajas. The house supports for U.S. veterans and provides physical and mental health services for veterans who are not able to receive their VA benefits.
"They are entitled to their military benefits," Torres said. "But because there are no VA offices outside of the United States, they cannot receive them."
Torres came to United States on a tourist visa at age 15. At 21, he enlisted in the Marines in Salt Lake City, Utah, posing as an American citizen with the aid of a fake birth certificate. He was about to begin his fourth year of service and deploy to Afghanistan, when he lost his wallet.
Losing his wallet forced Torres to prove his residence when he went to get a new driver's license. And that revealed his undocumented status.
He said his three years of service, letters of recommendation from Marine officers and no criminal or deportation record led to an honorable discharge in 2011 instead of a fraudulent enlistment charge.
Torres stayed in America while undocumented until he was 25, but he said he struggled, and quickly went into debt trying to live a normal life.
"A lot of people that are born and raised in the United States, they don't know what it's like to be an undocumented individual," he said. "You run a red light and you could be deported. If police stops you for whatever reason, you could be deported. If you lose your wallet, like I did, the simplest things. You always have that looming over your head. It's a very stressing, hard way of life. Just trying to make a living."
After Torres left the country voluntarily, he first attempted to join the French Foreign Legion.
"Unfortunately I was disqualified for service in the French military because I have hearing loss from the Marine Corps," he said. "Mexico was not my first option."
Today Torres lives in Tijuana and is six months away from a law degree.
He said many deported veterans have been sent back to Haiti, the Philippines and Africa, and they don't always have a connection in their native countries.
"There was a case of a deported United States veteran, who was sent back to Afghanistan," Torres said. "If anybody was to find out that he was an American veteran, that's a death sentence in Afghanistan. It's sad that the most loyal people are being shunned away from this country. It's not right."
While in Winter Haven for the weekend, Torres helped clean the area around Lake Shipp Park with the Dreamers.
"We do community service," said Enrique Martinez, who is the widower Barajas-Martinez. "Cleanup is one of them. My wife adopted this road one or two months before she died. We decided to keep on it and come out here periodically to clean the road."
Martinez recently graduated with a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of South Florida. He regularly tutors students in math and science.
The Young American Dreamers provide $1,750 in scholarships to local youth, as well as tutoring and meals to homeless college students through Polk State College's organization My Brother's Keeper.
"When it first started, it was about seven or eight kids," said Executive Director Daniel Barajas, brother of Barajas-Martinez. "Now we have membership of about 75. We've seen kids graduate from high school, college, education is our number one priority."
Barajas said the Young American Dreamers have been working with the Deported Veterans Support House for the past three years.
"A lot of people want to succeed it's just the lack of opportunity that lowers their belief in themselves," Barajas said. "We're just trying to show them that anyone can do it."