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Does Honorable Service Earn Noncitizen Vets a Chance to Call US Home?

Hector Barajas, founder of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, walks through the gates at the Mexico-U.S. border on June 2, 2016, where he was meeting U.S. immigration officials for fingerprinting. (Stars and Stripes/Dianna Cahn)
Hector Barajas, founder of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, walks through the gates at the Mexico-U.S. border on June 2, 2016, where he was meeting U.S. immigration officials for fingerprinting. (Stars and Stripes/Dianna Cahn)

TIJUANA, Mexico — On a Thursday morning in early June in this border town, 82nd Airborne veteran Hector Barajas-Varela donned his maroon beret, tucked his pants into his Corcoran jump boots — with an apology that they weren't spit-shined — and steeled his nerves. The 39-year-old grabbed his cane, locked the glass doors of the small shelter he runs for deported veterans and headed to the border to meet with a U.S. Customs and Immigrations Services official for fingerprinting. This is a big deal for Barajas-Varela, who was deported permanently from the United States in 2009. Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. when he was 7 and grew up in a rough, racially tense southern California neighborhood. When he was old enough, he joined the Army, which made him eligible for citizenship. But Barajas-Varela, like many deported veterans, never followed through on his naturalization paperwork, and after serving honorably, he got in trouble with drinking and drugs. He was banished after he pleaded guilty to a felony in 2002. Since then, he has built a life in Mexico, helping others who went astray after serving. He runs a shelter and spends his time advocating to reverse the deportations — including his own. Barajas-Varela maintains an abiding wish to return to the country he sees as his home. That opportunity is in his sights. "That's the scary part," he said as he approached the border for fingerprinting, a crucial step in getting his case for citizenship reconsidered. "I don't know if I will get to go home, to help raise my daughter." For the past few years, Barajas-Varela garnered scattered attention as he built up the Deported Veterans Support House, a shelter for former U.S. military service members known as "the Bunker." A report released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union brought the issue back into the headlines, saying that the federal government failed to ensure that immigrant service members became citizens and later deported "an untold number" without considering their service. Barajas-Varela is featured on the cover of the report, called "Discharged, Then Discarded," and is credited by the ACLU with giving deported veterans "a collective voice whose cries are finally being heard." He has been encouraged by recent events. With help from the ACLU and legal experts, deported Marine veteran Daniel Torres became a U.S. citizen in April. The customs service, USCIS, is considering Barajas-Varela's application after his crime — discharging a firearm — was reclassified and is no longer an aggravated felony. He says he's been told that immigration officials are looking at other deported veterans' cases. He has helped submit requests for 13 deportees — 12 veterans and a civilian who works with him and advocates for deported mothers — to receive humanitarian parole and be allowed to return to the U.S. based on a dire need for physical or mental health care. Returning might be a long shot for veterans deported for serious crimes. But Barajas-Varela came away from his own morning at the border with an optimism he said he hasn't felt for more than a decade. "They are working with us," he said after an hourlong meeting inside what he called the Golden Gates, between Tijuana and San Diego. "That's very important. They are looking at possibilities. They said, ‘Keep doing what you are doing. It's got our attention.' " A second chance For the deported veterans at the Bunker, their predicament has created a surprising community of felons and recovering addicts who share an emotional bond. They grappled with problems that hundreds of thousands of veterans face as they transition out of the military, particularly after service in times of war. They made bad decisions, abused alcohol or drugs; some joined criminal gangs. All of them acknowledge that their prison time was merited. They paid for their crimes. The question is whether their military service earned them a second chance. Across the border, fellow veterans receive help from the government they served. But in Tijuana, these men are mostly left to their own devices. They are a band of tainted warriors who offer each other hope. Support comes from fellow veterans or volunteers like retired Master Sgt. Cesar Medrano, who arrived at the Bunker one day from Los Angeles with a carload of donated groceries and supplies, and Miguel Gabriel Vazquez, one of two Vietnam War veterans who offer counseling at the Bunker. Vazquez, a trained counselor with a master's degree in psychology, practices holistic healing, using a technique called EFT that involves tapping points on the body to release emotional duress. He comes to the bunker once a week to do individual counseling. "They all have PTSD whether diagnosed or not," said Vazquez, who has not been deported but lives in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, where he moved to write a book on healing PTSD naturally. "These guys get all that plus the trauma of being deported." The men at the Bunker bond over their shared trauma and a surprising loyalty to the country that has turned them away.

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Veterans Mexico