A group of former U.S. service members marked Veterans Day on Tuesday with candlelight vigils aimed at drawing attention to the plight of non-citizen veterans who have been deported from the United States after being honorably discharged from the military but later convicted of crimes.
The Deported Veterans Support House, a Tijuana-based safe haven that aims to help deported veterans land back on their feet, collaborated with supporters in the U.S. to organize the vigils in cities across the United States — including Washington, Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix.
“If President Obama really wants to honor veterans, he will also honor our service by stopping the deportation of loyal members of the military and people who risked their lives for this country,” said Hector Barajas, a former Army parachutist and director of the house residents call “The Bunker.”
“President Obama can remedy this situation by issuing an executive order ending the practice of deporting veterans, something that has bipartisan support,” said Barajas.
While immigrants who serve in the U.S. military during times of war are provided with a fast track to citizenship, non-citizen veterans like Barajas who are found guilty of committing crimes after their service is complete can be deported — losing out on military benefits and sometimes even having to leave their families behind.
After serving in the U.S. Army for six years, Barajas, a Mexican national, was deported twice — once after discharging a firearm into a car, which he denies, and again after he was caught residing in the country illegally.
Though he has lived in the U.S. since the age of five, Barajas now resides in Mexico, where he runs “The Bunker” — far from his American-born, 9-year-old daughter.
“I understand it’s the law, but just because the law is in place, it doesn’t mean it’s just,” Barajas told Al Jazeera. “If we’re allowed to be buried as Americans, then why shouldn’t I be able to live with my American family and with my daughter?” Barajas was referring to a federal law that he says allows deported veterans a military burial in the United States.
“I think instead of deporting these men, we should be treating them,” he added, referring to those who have used drugs or alcohol or committed crimes as a result of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t track how many veterans have been deported from the U.S. But some advocates estimate that there have been hundreds, if not thousands. Barajas, for example, previously told Al Jazeera that he’s aware of more than 300 deported veterans just like him living in 21 countries, including Bosnia, Ghana and Ecuador.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order relaxing citizenship laws to allow non-citizens who had served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001 to file for citizenship, and making it easier for non-citizen veterans of previous wars to apply as well. Since then, the U.S. has naturalized 89,095 service members.
But it’s a different story for non-citizen veterans who’ve committed crimes after fulfilling their military commitments. They often face the same consequences as non-citizens who didn’t enlist. And while a 2011 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo calls for special consideration for veterans in deportation hearings (PDF), those guidelines are often applied inconsistently.
“It’s not right,” said Willie Hager, 72, from Jacksonville, Florida, who served two tours in the Vietnam War as a combat engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps. “They’ve gone and served their country, and when they returned, they got in trouble…and were immediately deported. So now they’re in limbo.”
Hager, who is a board member for the national advocacy group Veterans for Peace, traveled to Mexico in September to meet Barajas and has been advocating for deported veterans for the last three years.
“It’s resolvable by Obama,” Hager said. “He can turn this whole thing off and give them the amnesty they need to come back to this country to fight not only their criminal cases but to reestablish their lives in America, get back with their families and get some income.”
Esteban Burgoa, 51, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Chicago, can relate. After he was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq as part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, he lost his home to foreclosure and was homeless for two years. Now that he’s back on his feet, working as a truck driver, he is also a staunch community advocate, and is organizing a vigil in honor of deported veterans outside the Chicago VA Hospital.
“You serve the country, and they just throw you away like garbage,” he said. “These people served very gallantly in the battlefields, and nobody’s giving them any pardons. I feel that we need to give them special treatment. The wars wear you out mentally. … Sometimes PTSD makes you do things you don’t want to do.”
Early on Tuesday, Burgoa said he expected a few dozen supporters to drop by the vigil he organized in collaboration with Barajas. But Hager, who had also planned to hold a vigil in Jacksonville, cancelled the event due to lack of participation. Most veterans were already attending other Veterans Day events, he said. The event planned in New York City was also called off. As of Tuesday morning, the event in San Diego was still scheduled, but organizers weren’t expecting many attendees.
Still, Barajas said he would continue to partner with supporters in the U.S. to draw attention to the plight of deported veterans. While he may live in Tijuana, he misses his life in the U.S., and fondly recalls reciting the national “Pledge of Allegiance” in school and taking class trips to Washington, D.C. and the Statue of Liberty.
“My nationality is the United States,” he said. “I don’t feel any patriotic sense of duty to Mexico in any way. I live here and I’m a Mexican citizen, but I really don’t feel that. I’ve established myself here because I may never go home.”
Joanna Kao contributed to this report.