Navy veteran Alex Murillo, 43, a former aircraft mechanic, served in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Haifa during his nearly three years of service.
"I just wanted to make my family proud. I wanted to serve my country," Murillo said.
His parents brought him to the U.S. from Nogales, Mexico, as an infant. He grew up in Phoenix.
After he left the Navy in 2000, Murillo struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and adjusting to civilian life. He pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in 2009 and, as a result, was deported in 2011.
"The whole time I was thinking, like, man, I hope they stop this bus. I was praying; I had hoped that they would stop the bus and let me out. But no, they deported me, man," Murillo said.
He is one of hundreds of deported veterans, many of them from Mexico, who are living in legal limbo after serving the U.S. in uniform. They're hoping that, after pleas for return found little traction during the Trump administration, President Joe Biden will be the one to bring them back to the country they consider home. Many of those living in exile view Biden favorably and hope that his commitment to service members, coupled with his late son Beau's military service, may lead him to repatriate deported veterans.
The Biden administration has already said that veteran deportations will be reviewed, but advocates cite concerns that the review won't go back far enough or include all deported veterans.
At least 250 veterans were deported or in deportation proceedings between 2013 and 2018, according to a Government Accountability Office report. César López Nuñez, founder of Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, estimates there may be at least 1,000 deported veterans in Mexico alone.
Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, said former President Donald Trump's policies aimed to prevent service members from filing applications for citizenship, and the administration denied many applications that were filed.
"There was a giant drop-off in applications by military personnel, and a giant drop-off in the approvals of applications by military personnel as a result of these policies," she said at a symposium on deported veterans hosted by the University of Southern California Gould Law School and the Center for Law and Military Policy. "We're seeing an uptick again right now, but that's because of litigation."
Stock said the type of discharge service members receive can complicate the naturalization process, since only members who receive an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions may naturalize through their military service.
In 2020, there were less than half as many military naturalizations compared with 2016, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Troops often believe that they will have an expedited path to citizenship, stemming from a post-9/11 executive order from the Bush administration, but changes under the Trump administration have made it more difficult for noncitizens in the military to get citizenship.
“I was a lawful permanent resident during and after my military service, but I failed to naturalize in part because I received no information about the process to naturalize from the military or anywhere else,” Hector Barajas-Varela, director and founder of the Deported Veterans Support House, said during his testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship in Oct. 2019. “There was no program to encourage noncitizens in the military to ensure they became U.S. citizens. I do not recall receiving any information about my eligibility for naturalization after I separated from the military.”
Less than one-third of the 87 veterans (30%) who were ordered deported and studied in the GAO’s report had applied for naturalization with USCIS.
Policy changes are also complicated by the deported veterans’ histories. Since many of the deported veterans were brought to the U.S. as young children, they join the military to serve their country, not to acquire citizenship. They already identify as Americans.
“I mean, being American, it's just part of my identity. It's not something you're gonna take away, it's who I am,” Murillo said. “It's where I grew up. It's all my experiences back home. I mean, it's all the people I've known. It's the way that I grew up in America. I mean, you're not going to ever take that away from me. I didn't grow up anywhere else. I didn't fight for anyone else. I didn't swear my allegiance to anywhere else.”
Many noncitizens in the military are unaware of their naturalization options or are given incorrect information, said Marine veteran López Nuñez, who served as a bulk fuel specialist.
"I wanted to protect, I wanted to serve, and citizenship was the last thing on my mind," he said. "And when I went back to, to my command, and I asked about that, and they're like, 'Oh, you're already a Marine; you don't need a citizenship.'"
The lack of clear information and resources about the path to citizenship for troops is a major concern for advocates.
"I've heard people say it's a personal responsibility," Barajas-Varela said. "And it is, but It's also like taking care of your soldiers. I've heard people say, well, we're not there to hold your hand. Yeah, we hold your hand on how to fire a rifle and how to treat a wound and how to march, so why not make sure that you take care of somebody that potentially might die in Vietnam or Afghanistan or in a training accident?"
Punished for Self-Medicating
Legislative changes in 1996 under the Clinton administration significantly lowered the bar for what crimes are considered aggravated felonies, a term specific to immigration law.
Aggravated felonies under immigration law are not necessarily considered aggravated or felonies under criminal law, but they permanently bar people from establishing “good moral character” for naturalization purposes.
Aggravated felonies range widely, from murder or sexual abuse of a minor to theft and gambling charges that carry at least a one-year prison sentence, according to USCIS.
Stock said most veterans would be able to naturalize, absent criminal convictions that are considered aggravated felonies, calling them "the most significant bar today for most veterans."
Drug-related convictions were most common for those who were "ordered removed,” accounting for more than one-third of veterans studied (approximately 37%), according to data from the GAO.
Robert Vivar, co-director of the Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center, said many deported veterans he knows enlisted as soon as they graduated from high school as "wholesome, All-American kids," but have difficulty adjusting to civilian life after they leave the military and turn to alcohol and marijuana to self-medicate.
"Even before you leave the military, while in military, the self-medicating is already taking place," Vivar said. "On many occasions, you're asked to go to another country ... and on many occasions, you do kill, or you see your buddies that you went through basic training cut down right in front of you. This is a tremendous amount of trauma that is being built up within that person."
Army veteran Iván Ocón, 43, had served for seven years before returning from a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Ocón was assigned to funeral detail, which he had done earlier. In the previous four-month assignment, he attended the funerals and burials of nine soldiers. He couldn't do it again, he said, and received a general discharge under honorable conditions.
After aiding and abetting a kidnapping and brandishing a weapon convictions stemming from a drug deal, Ocón was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he was released after nine years for good conduct.
Then, he was deported. Ocón, a co-director of the Deported Veterans Support House in Juarez, said he feels like being deported after his incarceration is "double jeopardy."
"People do make mistakes, and one mistake shouldn't define the rest of your life," he said.
'God Bless Our Troops'
Though administration officials confirmed in February that Biden will review veteran deportation, some worry that he may review only deportations that occurred during the Trump administration, not all of them.
"We're very skeptical at this point, because what we have heard is that the only cases that they're interested at this time in reviewing are those cases of veterans and family members that were deported under the Trump administration,” Vivar said. “Under the Trump administration is very few, compared to how many were deported under Obama and his administration, coupled with the Bush administration's and the Clinton administration. So if he's only going to review and give access to citizenship to those veterans deported under Trump, that's not acceptable."
In a statement, a White House spokesperson confirmed that Biden will review deportations of veterans and their family members.
"As a military parent, President Biden knows the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make for our country each and every day. The administration's immigration enforcement will focus on those who are national security and public safety threats, not military families, service members or veterans. The federal government in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security will take further review of removals of veterans and their family members."
The Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act, reintroduced by Democratic Reps. Juan Vargas and Mark Takano of California and Raúl Grijavla of Arizona and backed by 36 co-sponsors, would prevent deportation of noncitizen veterans and allow opportunities for noncitizen members of the military and their families. Under the New Way Forward Act, reintroduced by Democratic Reps. Jesús García of Illinois, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Karen Bass of California and backed by 41 co-sponsors, the U.S. attorney general could reconsider deportations that happened after April 24, 1996.
For some deported veterans, legislation is a hopeful sign that their fight to return to the U.S. is not over.
“We're gonna push for everything. We're gonna push for the executive order, that's gonna get us home, we're gonna push for a new way forward, that will get us home. And for myself, I am going to push for a presidential pardon for myself for the cannabis charge, and that would get me home,” Murillo said. “So we're fighting, we're fighting on all fronts."
But López Nuñez is skeptical.
"Legislation has been submitted for the last 22 years and nothing's happened, so I really have very little confidence and in Congress ... to bring all deported veterans home," López Nuñez said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., confirmed that the Biden administration would review veteran deportations.
"This is something that I deal directly with the president on," she said during the symposium. "I've let them know that this is a priority for me, so they're moving forward on it."
Duckworth also confirmed that she will reintroduce the Veterans Visa and Protection Act.
"It is high on my agenda, and I'm going to continue to reintroduce those pieces of legislation," she said. "I will tell you that the Biden administration is very friendly to them. Now that we have a majority in the Senate and a majority in the House, I think we're going to be able to get some of these things passed."
The bill would require the secretary of Homeland Security to create a visa program that would allow deported veterans to return as lawful permanent residents.
"During the campaign, Biden promised to bring all deported veterans back to the United States," said José Francisco López, an Army veteran and father of five who was deported to Mexico for attempting to possess and distribute cocaine. "But, as we know, oftentimes politicians make promises and don't keep any of them. I hope that he will keep his promise and bring us back home to our families."
A Grateful Nation
Latinos have played a critical role in the U.S. military, Tomás Summers Sandoval said. Summers Sandoval, who is writing a book based on Latino Vietnam veterans' oral histories, is an associate professor of history and Chicanx-Latinx at Pomona College.
"The U.S. military has often been welcoming of immigrant populations, and it's often been a way for those immigrants to become more assimilated and integrated into the U.S.," Summers Sandoval said. "Latinos have been a part of every major war that the United States has been involved in from the Revolutionary War forward."
Barajas-Varela, 44, is one of the few deported U.S. veterans to be allowed to return.
After years of going through the legal process, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Barajas-Varela, who was convicted of shooting at an occupied vehicle after pleading no contest. Barajas-Varela became a citizen on April 13, 2018.
"I can go home whenever. ... I can visit my daughter whenever I want to," Barajas-Varela said. "I'm ready to start school, hopefully, and I really got to build a relationship with my daughter."