Deported Veterans Long to Return From Exile. Some Will Get the Chance.
ROSARITO, Mexico – Alex Murillo leads a busy life in the Mexican town of Rosarito, a 40-minute drive from the US border near Tijuana. By day, he works in a call center, talking cheerfully and caring to retirees across the United States about their health insurance. After work, he stuffs crampons, flags and other equipment in a sports bag and walks up to the coach of a team of young footballers whose players credit him for developing their skills in the game. American sport.
But Mr Murillo, 43, has no desire to stay in Rosarito, where he has lived for nearly a decade. In fact, he doesn’t feel like he belongs in Mexico at all, a country he left as a child.
Home, for him, is in Phoenix, where he grew up, enlisted in the Navy, had four children – and then got into trouble. He was deported two days before Christmas in 2011, after serving time for carrying several hundred pounds of marijuana.
Mr. Murillo is one of hundreds of immigrant veterans who have been returned for life to their country of birth as a result of crimes, sometimes minor, they committed after their military service.
“I’ve always waited for the day when I can go back there,” said Murillo, who wore, as he does many days, an Arizona Cardinals hoodie. “Everything I do here is positive, but I want to be home with my family. “
The wait, he hopes, is almost over.
The Biden administration said this month it would start allowing foreign-born veterans who have been deported to return to the United States and help them become American citizens.
“We are committed to bringing back military personnel, veterans and their immediate family members who have been unfairly removed and ensuring that they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of State for Homeland Security.
The announcement was momentous for veterans who have been exiled from the United States, often for more than a decade.
Robert Vivar, co-director of the United States Deported Veterans’ Unified Resource Center in Tijuana, estimates that there are at least 1,000 military deportees living in some 40 countries. About two dozen have been allowed to return in recent years, mostly those who had committed the less serious criminal offenses, such as possession of firearms or driving while intoxicated. The governors’ pardons have paved the way for some repatriations, although they may take years.
But deciding who qualifies for readmission could prove tricky: some of the veterans have committed serious crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and, in Mr Murillo’s case, major drug offenses. and it is not clear that everyone will be allowed to return.
“How are they going to determine who has been ‘wrongfully removed’? said Hector Barajas, 44, a former decorated U.S. Army paratrooper convicted of shooting a car in 2002 and who returned in 2018 after a pardon from former California Governor Jerry Brown.
What is certain is that the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies will be tasked with helping a group of people who will most likely need a range of services as they strive to rebuild their lives. .
Separated from their families, they often saw their lives deteriorate further in countries they had long left. Their spouses have left them; their children have become confused.
“It’s not like we’re home now, have a job and our families are back,” said Barajas, whose activism first drew attention to the plight. deported ex-combatants.
Now an American citizen, Mr. Barajas has battled depression and diabetes. It was difficult to reconnect with her 16-year-old daughter after her prolonged absence.
“They’re going to have a hard time re-acclimatizing,” said Rudy Melson, president of Consultants for America’s Veterans, which helps veterans living overseas. “We will have to create resources, rules and programs. We owe it to the men and women we chased away to restore them to their original state. “
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have fought in major conflicts since the War of Independence. By serving honorably in the army for a year, or even a single day in wartime, they are entitled by law to accelerated naturalization. But that doesn’t happen often.
Some never apply, believing recruiters who have told them that enlistment automatically grants them citizenship. It is difficult to complete paperwork when deployed overseas, especially in war zones. Some applications mailed from the bases got lost.
Many veterans said they did not realize they could be deported until an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer showed up after their jail time ended. Many feel aggrieved because after serving their sentence they face additional punishment.
“The country you were ready to die for threw you like garbage,” said Hector Lopez, 57, a US Army veteran who was expelled in 2006 and now helps run the resource center for the deportees to Tijuana.
But critics of general readmissions say any non-citizen who commits a serious crime risks possible deportation. “This is how the law works,” Rep. Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said at a 2019 hearing on deported veterans. “There’s no one else who would get an exception to this. “
Changes to the immigration law in 1996 made all green card holders more vulnerable to deportation by reclassifying certain lower level offenses as “aggravated crimes” for which deportation became mandatory. Drug-related offenses, theft and tax evasion have become grounds for final deportation, regardless of military service.
Gonzalo Fuentes, who arrived in the United States at the age of 3 and served in the military during Operation Desert Storm, was deported in 1999 for transporting a 58-pound load of marijuana to Louisiana since Texas.
“I have only transported marijuana once,” said Mr. Fuentes, 54. “That’s all it took to ignite.”
Desperate to return, he crossed the border illegally. He lived and worked in Corpus Christi, Texas, until he was deported again in 2009, after being arrested for a broken tail light. This action added another crime to his record.
He currently lives in Cancun, where he gets by selling vacation packages to Americans and Canadians. But he longs to be with his parents, who aren’t healthy enough to travel. “All I want is a second chance,” he said. The new engagement of the Biden administration, he said, “is my last hope.”
Mr. Murillo said he had never considered himself to be anything other than American.
“I grew up like an ordinary American kid,” he said. “I played baseball, basketball and football.”
He joined the Navy straight out of high school in 1996. At the time, his parents were applying for citizenship and he could have been added to their application.
“Mom, don’t spend any money on this,” her mom, Leticia Bernal, told her. “They give me my citizenship in the Navy.”
Mr. Murillo was deployed to the Middle East on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington as an aircraft mechanic. At a Florida base in 1998, he was caught using marijuana and ultimately fired for misconduct.
He returned to Phoenix after a broken marriage, and from there, he said, his life was turned upside down. Still on drugs, he lost his job as a satellite dish installer and fell behind on alimony payments after his divorce.
In April 2009, he agreed to drive a huge load of marijuana in St. Louis for $ 10,000, but was caught by a highway patrol officer.
He was sentenced to 37 months in prison and, after his release in December 2011, was placed on a bus to Mexico.
In Rosarito, he became a dedicated activist for deported veterans, raising awareness about them by calling members of Congress and creating videos for the public. His name was added to that of the deportees painted on the border wall of Tijuana.
Back in Arizona, her children found themselves in the care of Child Protective Services. A few years later, his two sons began to abuse fentanyl and live on the streets, until Mr. Murillo had them brought to Rosarito, where he helped them to recover.
“They are stronger when they are close to Alex,” said his mother, Ms. Bernal.
After soccer practice one recent evening, fellow coaches said they would miss Mr Murillo if he returned to the United States, but said he deserved it.
“We will be more than happy when the coach returns – he has paid his dues,” said one of the coaches, Gil Rodriguez.
Mr. Murillo says he just wants to be back where he feels right now.
“I grew up with ‘Scooby-Doo’, ‘Andy Griffith’, ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Price Is Right’, Oprah, baseball – all things American,” he said. “Everything I am is American. “
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