Deported U.S. Army veteran Jose Francisco Lopez Moreno, 73, overlooks the fence separating him from the United States as he sits along a hill in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México, Monday, July 23, 2018. (Photo by Joel Angel Juárez/GroundTruth)
Death is the only guarantee of these troops returning home. A casket draped with stars and stripes will contain their body as it is lowered 6 feet deep into the same land that they swore their life to protect. Only those with an honorable discharge will have the opportunity to be buried with military honors in a national cemetery. An American flag will be given to their families honoring their service and sacrifice to the very nation that deported them.
An estimated 35,000 non-citizens currently serve active duty in the U.S. military, and 8,000 more join every year according to the Pentagon, with an understanding that they will be naturalized during or following their service. Green Card veterans who leave the military early or are convicted of a crime may face deportation.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act shifting immigration policies and expanding the types of criminal convictions considered to be aggravated felonies eligible for deportation. The law no longer considered military service in deportation cases.
Within a decade of the immigration act, the United States deported 897,000 non-citizens following the completion of their criminal sentences according to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2009. Among these deportations include more than 3,000 United States military veterans deported to at least 34 countries—some of whom have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam—according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Upon their deportation, these veterans have lost access to their Social Security and some Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. Although they are still able to apply for and receive VA disability and pension checks, they lose access to VA clinics and hospitals due to their inability to enter the United States.
Deported veterans have reported experiencing issues ranging from inadequate healthcare, housing, employment, food security, substance abuse, negative stigmas and being “othered” for being a deportee in their birth-country. Some deported veterans have also reported having to conceal their military background from fear of discrimination, losing employment, as well as being extorted and targeted by organized crime and government authorities.
Legal pathways for deported U.S. military veterans seeking to return to the United States varies. Only those that received an honorable discharge are entitled to a burial with military honors in a U.S. national cemetery. However, all deported veterans have the options of seeking a pardon for their deportable crimes, and if the pardons are granted, it may allow them to reopen and accelerate their case to immigration officials. Deported veterans may also qualify to reapply for a green card if their felony convictions are cleared or reduced to misdemeanors.
Not all deported U.S. military veterans wish to return home. Some have established new lives and family abroad, while others want nothing to do with the United States after being deported from the only country they knew as home. However, most share the desire to receive their VA benefits and healthcare that they were entitled to before their time in immigration detention.
This ongoing project seeks to explore the issues facing deported U.S. military veterans and their families. The project is currently expanding to include military green-card holders that are applying to become a citizen and those that are currently living in the United States and are facing the uncertainty of deportation.
This story has three main roads, all interconnected: immigration policy, the criminal justice system and the U.S. military apparatus.
These men and women were brought to the United States, some as young as eight months old, and grew up knowing this country as their only home. They joined the U.S. Armed Forces as green card holders and once discharged from the military, many of them struggled with their transition to civilian life. That transition landed some in trouble with the law.
These veterans completed their criminal sentences for their felony convictions. However, since they were legal permanent residents, their green card was revoked due to having a felony conviction on their criminal record making them eligible for deportation. They then had to serve another sentence in immigration detention before eventually being deported to their birth country.
This immigration policy is not exclusive to military veterans, but applies to all green card holders including civilians. What makes this story unique is that the policy no longer considered military service in deportation cases. Many of these veterans had struggled with post- traumatic stress disorder and unemployment after their military discharge and had to find ways to cope with it. The different ways they found relief might have landed them in handcuffs.
The two major avenues for deported veterans to legally return to American soil is by being granted a pardon for their crimes or by death.
In 2017, U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas Varela was granted a pardon by California Gov. Jerry Brown. A year later, he was to receive a decision from U.S. immigration officials on whether or not he would be repatriated. Officials waited until the last day of their deadline to deliver their decision and on March 29, 2018, he was granted a naturalization ceremony in San Diego that would take place in two weeks. In attendance of the announcement was several other deported military veterans including U.S. Marine Corps veteran Enrique Salas, who would ultimately be returning home before Barajas Varela.
Salas, a Gulf War veteran, was seriously injured in a car accident in Tijuana just four days after Barajas Varela was granted his naturalization ceremony. It took 10 days for an emergency humanitarian parole visa to be granted allowing Salas to receive better care in the United States. However, it was too late and he died en route to a hospital in the United States on April 12, 2018. Salas, deported in 2006, was able to return to the U.S. only to be buried with military honors next to his younger brother, another fallen Marine, in Reedley, California.
The more you know, the less you know. That’s how things really opened up for me and it is what keeps this project going. If you look at the motions of things, the deportation of these military veterans is in a way the end of that trajectory. So I am now not only looking at the issues that deported veterans have to deal with, but also at what possibly contributed to their deportation and how other green card veterans on American soil are navigating their pathway to citizenship.
It’s been a privilege and honor to be welcomed into this community of veterans and even more as a civilian and journalist with a camera. The history of these men and women are often underreported or just barely scratched on the surface. Making it known to this community that I’m following this story long-term has been critical in gaining access and trust. I continually try to keep in touch with these veterans and revisit them when able to. Their lives are going to change, some will come home others won’t, but in a way they have placed me on a mission to amplify their stories in the hopes that something can be done about their situation.