Service Members, Not Citizens: Meet The Veterans Who Have Been Deported

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Former U.S. Marine Daniel Torres stands outside the Deported Veteran Support House, known as the The Bunker, in eastern Tijuana. (NPR)
Former U.S. Marine Daniel Torres stands outside the Deported Veteran Support House, known as the The Bunker, in eastern Tijuana. (NPR)

During World War II, thousands of Americans lied about their age to enlist in the military. During the Iraq war, Daniel Torres lied about something else.

"I didn't want to be just another Mexican living in the U.S. I wanted to say I'd done something for the country," said Torres.

Torres' parents came to the U.S. legally, but overstayed their visas — leaving him without a green card. But in 2007, with the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan peaking, a Marine Corps recruiter in Idaho was happy to rush through the formalities. Social Security number? Check. High school diploma? Check. Criminal record? None.

"Well, what about your birth certificate?" Torres remembers the recruiter asked.

"I'm from Mexico," Torres said. "He's like, 'Well, come back Monday.' "

The fence that runs through eastern Tijuana, separating Mexico from the United States.
The fence that runs through eastern Tijuana, separating Mexico from the United States.

Torres came back Monday with a U.S. birth certificate — it was fake, but for a good cause, he thought.

He deployed to Iraq, near Fallujah, in 2009. When his unit came home and started gearing up for a tour in Afghanistan, Torres lost his wallet. When he tried to get his ID replaced, his story came apart.

Instead of going to Afghanistan, Torres wound up in Tijuana, Mexico, unable to return to the country for which he had fought.

Immigrants have always made up a portion of the Armed Forces in America — joining the U.S. military has always been one of the fastest ways to get U.S. citizenship. About 8,000 troops with green cards became citizens that way last year alone.

But it doesn't happen automatically. And veterans who did not go through the process of becoming citizens — they can be deported, if they get in trouble later on, just like any other noncitizen.

Hector Barajas washes the dishes in the Deported Veteran Support House, also known as The Bunker. Barajas has been running the shelter, seen in the bottom right photo, for about five years. At left is a collection of photos from Hector Barajas' service in the U.S. Army.
Hector Barajas washes the dishes in the Deported Veteran Support House, also known as The Bunker. Barajas has been running the shelter, seen in the bottom right photo, for about five years. At left is a collection of photos from Hector Barajas' service in the U.S. Army.

"Many people are unaware that the United States deports military veterans," says Margaret Stock, a former Army lieutenant colonel and an immigration lawyer.

Stock says immigrants have been enlisting since 1775, and it's always been a fast track to citizenship.

"There's many legal reasons why you'd want immigrants serving in the United States military to get their citizenship," she says, since troops will be killing, dying and maybe getting captured under the U.S. flag.

Naturalization used to be part of basic training, but the laws changed, Stock says. As a result, lots of green card holders went to Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming citizens. She says the Obama administration has been aggressive about deporting immigrants who commit crimes, including veterans, though no one knows an exact number. It's rare enough that even Marine Daniel Torres says he'd never heard of it.

"When I got to Tijuana, I thought my case was unique. It wasn't until I found this place that I realized it was a bigger issue," Torres says.

Pastor Robert Salazar (center) prays before giving his sermon at the "Cruising for Jesus" mission of Tijuana. Salazar's church also runs a men's drug-rehab shelter nearby to help deported veterans.
Pastor Robert Salazar (center) prays before giving his sermon at the "Cruising for Jesus" mission of Tijuana. Salazar's church also runs a men's drug-rehab shelter nearby to help deported veterans.

This place is The Bunker, or the Deported Veteran Support House. It's a small storefront in eastern Tijuana with a few dormitory rooms. An Army vet named Hector Barajas has been running the shelter for about five years — at first from his home.

"When they'd deport any veterans, they would usually end up in my apartment. That's the system we had," Barajas says.

Barajas served in the Army for 5 1/2 years. He got out in 2001, after trying to get help for drug and alcohol addiction.

Soon after, he was involved in a shooting in Los Angeles — no one was hurt, but he did prison time. Then authorities drove him to the border and dropped him in Mexico.

Barajas spent time on the street himself. By the time he set up The Bunker, he knew what he was doing.

At top left, Felix Alvarez, a U.S. Army vet, sits with his friend Augie Garcia, a U.S. Navy vet, at another rehabilitation center, in the hills outside of Tijuana. At top right, Hector Barajas chats with a vet who asked not to be named in the kitchen area of the facility run by Salazar. At bottom, Garcia (left) talks with Barajas in the countryside of Tijuana during one of Barajas' visits.
At top left, Felix Alvarez, a U.S. Army vet, sits with his friend Augie Garcia, a U.S. Navy vet, at another rehabilitation center, in the hills outside of Tijuana. At top right, Hector Barajas chats with a vet who asked not to be named in the kitchen area of the facility run by Salazar. At bottom, Garcia (left) talks with Barajas in the countryside of Tijuana during one of Barajas' visits.

"Somebody coming in, they gotta sign in, go get a medical report. They have a certain time to stay here; everybody's got to look for a job. If you want to run a men's home, you gotta have some kind of a system for everything," Barajas says.

That includes drug rehab. When the guys who come to him need to clean up, Barajas sends them across town — to another deported veteran.

In a warehouse a few miles away, a band opens services at the "Cruising for Jesus" mission of Tijuana. Pastor Robert Salazar preaches on a stage flanked by classic East LA low-rider cars and trucks inside the church.

Salazar's church also runs a men's drug rehab shelter, and he's happy to help deported veterans. Salazar was a U.S. Marine in the mid-1990s. Just like Barajas, he got hooked on drugs and ran into trouble with the law. After a robbery conviction, Salazar was deported in 2005 — dropped at the Tijuana border at 3 a.m.

"I hadn't been here since I was 3 years old," Salazar says. "You might as well have dropped me off in China — that's how foreign this place was to me," he says.

He did all right, though. Salazar got religion and started his church. His wife came down and joined him. Ten years later, he says he wants to stay, but he'd like to be able to visit his family in California.

"I think I should have the right to visit my mother; my mother's 76 years old, with failing health," he says. "My daughter now is a Marine. She's been in the Marine Corps for nine months. I served in the Marine Corps. I should be able to see my daughter graduate boot camp."

Margaret Stock, the immigration lawyer, says the rules about deportation are confusing and not evenly applied. Congress could fix that, she says, but Washington is gridlocked, and immigration is now chained to election-year politics.

Stock says some of the deported vets in Tijuana may be able to get their cases reconsidered. Daniel Torres, the Marine who served in Fallujah, says he's still a loyal Marine, and he feels like he deserves to return to the U.S.

"We're not just some foreigners that got deported," Torres says. "We feel like Americans that have been banished, in exile from the country we love the most."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're about to meet people who served in the United States armed forces but have now been thrown out of the United States. They call themselves banished veterans. They are people who enlisted in the military even though they were not U.S. citizens.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And you can do that. You can enlist with a green card. In fact, military service speeds up the process of becoming citizens for many immigrants.

INSKEEP: But for those who have not yet completed the citizenship process, the rules for non-citizens still apply, and that means they can be deported if they get into trouble.

NPR's Quil Lawrence met some of these veterans and found that in Tijuana, Mexico.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Anyone who joined the Marines in 2007 knew the score. That was the year the death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan peaked.

DANIEL TORRES: Oh, yeah. When I enlisted, you know, I was talking to a recruiter and he's, like, well, you're going into the infantry, so you're going to deploy. And you're OK with that? I'm like, yeah, I'm fine. I can do it. I'll do it, you know. Young, dumb, ready-to-go.

LAWRENCE: Daniel Torres says his recruiter in Idaho needed numbers. They rushed through the formalities - Social Security number, high school diploma.

TORRES: Well, what about your birth certificate? I'm from Mexico. He was like OK, well, come back Monday (laughter).

LAWRENCE: Torres came back Monday with a U.S. birth certificate. It was fake but for a good cause, he thought.

TORRES: When I enlisted, I didn't just want to be another Mexican living in the U.S. I wanted to be able to say that I had done something for the country.

LAWRENCE: Daniel Torres spent 2009 in Iraq, outside Fallujah. The next year, his unit geared up for Helmand, Afghanistan. And then Torres lost his wallet. When he tried to get his IDs replaced, his story came apart. Instead of going to Afghanistan, Torres wound up in Tijuana, Mexico, unable to return to the country for which he fought.

MARGARET STOCK: Many people are unaware that the United States deports military veterans.

LAWRENCE: Margaret Stock is a former Army lieutenant colonel and an immigration lawyer. She says immigrants have been enlisting since the country began. She mentions a scene in the movie "Gangs Of New York."

STOCK: The Irish are getting off the boat, and they're being sworn into the Union Army, and they're also being sworn in as American citizens.

LAWRENCE: Naturalization used to be part of basic training, but the laws changed, Stock says. And a lot of green card holders went to Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming citizens. She says the Obama White House has been aggressive about deporting immigrants who commit crimes, even veterans, but no one knows an exact number. It's rare enough that even Marine Daniel Torres says he'd never heard of it.

TORRES: When I got to Tijuana, I thought my case was unique. It wasn't until I found this place that I realized that this is a bigger issue.

LAWRENCE: This place is called The Bunker. Next to a tire shop in east Tijuana, a huge American flag hangs in a glass storefront labeled deported veteran support house.

HECTOR BARAJAS: OK, sounds good.

LAWRENCE: Hector Barajas sits behind a desk there most days, networking. Deported vets have no access to VA care or other benefits, so Barajas tries to connect them with help. He started informally about five years ago.

BARAJAS: What happened was is whenever they would deport any veterans, they would usually end up in my department. Pretty much if they needed a place to stay, they would come to me, you know (laughter).

LAWRENCE: That was the system?

BARAJAS: Well, yeah. That's the system we had.

LAWRENCE: Barajas served five and a half years in the Army. He left in 2001, addicted to drugs and alcohol. Soon after, he was involved in a shooting. No one was hurt, but he did prison time, then authorities drove him to the border and dropped him in Mexico. Barajas spent time on the street and in shelters. By the time he set up The Bunker, he knew what he was doing.

BARAJAS: There's a system for everything from somebody coming in that they have to sign in. They have to go get a medical report. You know, the counselors that come here - there's - you know, if you want to run a men's home then you have to have some kind of system for everything.

LAWRENCE: That includes drug rehab. When the guys who come to him need to clean up, Barajas sends them across town to another deported vet.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

LAWRENCE: In warehouse a few miles away, the band opens services at the Cruising for Jesus mission of Tijuana.

ROBERT SALAZAR: Amen. (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: Pastor Robert Salazar uses a lot of car metaphors in his sermons. A few classic low-rider cars and trucks flank the pulpit inside the church. Salazar's church also runs a men's drug rehab shelter. He's happy to help deported veterans sent here from The Bunker because he's walked in their shoes. Salazar was a U.S. Marine in the mid-1990s.

SALAZAR: Most of the time that I did spend overseas was, you know, partying and drinking. That's kind of how I dealt with being away from home. And I got out of the Marine Corps - I got out in '96, and I think I was already addicted, a full-time addict by '98, '99.

LAWRENCE: Salazar got convicted for robbery and then deported in 2005, dropped at the Tijuana border at 3 a.m.

SALAZAR: Like I tell everybody - they're like, well, you're from here. I say I hadn't been here since I was 3 years old. You might as well have dropped me off in China. That's how foreign this place was to me.

LAWRENCE: He did all right, though. Salazar got religion and started this church. His wife came down and joined him. Ten years later, he says he wants to stay. He'd just like to be able to visit his family back in California.

SALAZAR: But I think I should have the right to go and visit my mother. My mother is 76 years old with failing health. My daughter now is a Marine. She's been in the Marine Corps for nine months. I served in the Marine Corps. I think I should be able to go watch my daughter graduate from boot camp. My son's getting ready to sign up in the Army. All my kids - you know, my son was born in a Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

STOCK: Most of these folks would never have gotten deported if they had become citizens before they left the military. We shouldn't be treating them like this.

LAWRENCE: Margaret Stock, the immigration lawyer, says the rules about deportation are confusing and not evenly applied. Congress could fix that, but Washington is gridlocked, and immigration is now chained to election-year politics. She's has some of the deported back in Tijuana they be able to get their cases reconsidered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, sure (laughter).

LAWRENCE: Back at The Bunker, Daniel Torres, who served in Fallujah, says he's still a loyal Marine.

TORRES: It's really hard to say - well, I deserve to be in the United States. Yeah, I deserve to be in the United States. We're not just some foreigners that got deported. We feel like Americans that have been banished, you know, that are in exile from the country that we love the most.

LAWRENCE: In the meantime, Torres is working at a call center as a telemarketer for a few dollars a day and taking college courses in Tijuana. He wants to become a lawyer, hopefully back in the USA.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.