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Booted and banned: Former U.S. troops battle to come home

Courtesy of Hector Barajas

Expelled to Mexico from the United States after serving in the American military, veterans Fabian Rebolledo (first from the left), Juan Jose Sotomayor (third from the left) and Hector Barajas fourth from the left) are waging a legal battle for medical benefits and, perhaps, a return home. Tony Lamson, (second from the left), is a missionary helping the veterans

Five ex-American service members are mashed into a two-bedroom apartment in the Mexican border town of Rosarito Beach — a place of last stand, a foreign exile they’ve dubbed the “support house for banished veterans.”

All five were deported from the United States after being convicted of unrelated crimes —  including nonviolent offenses — committed after serving their nation, both in war and peace. They’re using their cramped hub to push for veterans’ medical benefits and lobby for a Congressional hearing to examine their expulsions. Yet there’s an even more pressing matter: more ex-U.S. troops are headed their way following similar deportations.

“It’s just a matter of time before I get two or three more guys. We don’t have the room. I guess we’ll put up some tents outside,” said Hector Barajas, 36, leader of the house and an Army paratrooper from 1995 to 2001. He immigrated from Mexico with his family when he was a child, growing up in Compton, Calif. Soon after his service, he pleaded guilty to firing a gun into a vehicle. No one was hurt. He served two years. In 2004, he was deported to Mexico. 

“I paid my debt. When I enlisted, I swore to defend the Constitution and defend the United States against all foreign threats, Mexico as well. I was wiling to go to war with Mexico. I’m still willing to do that,” said Barajas, who, like the other members of the house, had green cards when they enlisted in the U.S. military. “I’ve got bad knees from being a paratrooper but I can’t access (Veterans Affairs) benefits.”

Numbers on deported veterans are, at best, guesswork. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not currently track what portion of the individuals removed from the United States are military veterans. At the California detention center where Barajas was held a decade ago, he counted 17 fellow veterans, which led him to roughly calculate that among 250 such centers across the country, there are perhaps more than 4,000 veterans set to be expelled at any given time after their criminal convictions.

“We don’t know how many,” said Craig Shagin, a lawyer in Harrisburg, Pa., now representing three veterans facing deportation and who has had 14 other veteran-clients booted out of the United States to Great Britain, Italy, Jamaica, Uruguay and other countries.  “You’d think if we were proud of this kind of thing, we’d be keeping the records.”

Since September 2001, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has naturalized 74,977 members of the military, with 9,773 of those service members becoming citizens. They originally came from 27 countries including: Afghanistan, China  (Hong Kong), Cuba (Guantanamo), Iraq, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.

The deportations of veterans may follow convictions of felonies such as homicides or sexual assaults, but, as Shagin said, “they don't have to be felonies at all. They often are misdemeanors or unclassified crimes. Of course, I don’t look at the crime. They were punished for the crimes, whatever they were. As veterans who served this country, they should not face deportation.

“But yes, minor, minor, crimes can lead to deportation,” Shagin added. “Under U.S. immigration law, there are certain offenses — most notably crimes of theft and crimes of violence — that become aggravated when the alien is sentenced for a year or more in prison. And that’s even if the sentence was suspended (or reduced).

“These polices are not liberal or conservative, not pro-immigration or anti-immigration, they’re just plain stupid. It’s awfully hard to live with this blatant stupidity,” Shagin said.

Said ICE spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs: "ICE carefully reviews any potential enforcement action involving a veteran. Prior to removing an alien with military service, agents must first receive authorization from senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel. ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate and (ICE) Director (John) Morton's June 2011 memo on prosecutorial discretion specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered when deciding whether prosecutorial discretion is appropriate.”

Courtesy of Hector Barajas

Hector Barajas when he served as a U.S. Army paratrooper.

One of Barajas’ housemates, Fabian Rebolledo, a former Army paratrooper who served eight months in Kosovo, was convicted on an insufficient funds charge after writing a $750 check. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison — triggering, he said, an automatic deportation — even though he served only eight months.

Rebolledo spent most of his life in California after coming to America with his family at age 13. He was deported in 2010.

“Ever since then, I’m here,” said Rebolledo, 37.  “We are expanding. We are telling everybody about our cause. Every single place we go here, we talk about this. When I joined the military, I was promised my citizenship. My recruiter lied to me.”

Groups pushing to halt illegal immigration and stiffen border security, like the nonprofit Federation for American Immigrant Reform (FAIR), insist that veterans like Rebolledo and Barajas all agreed to a sacred accord when they crossed into U.S. soil: obey the laws or return to their places of origin.

“When you come to the United States as a legal immigrant, the bargain is you are not going to get into trouble. It’s a conditional agreement. We allow you to come here and pursue life, liberty and happiness and, in return, we expect you’re not going to commit felonies,” said Ira Mehlman, the spokesman for FAIR. “They served in the military but that doesn’t exempt one from complying with the law."

“It’s a question of loyalty,” responded attorney Shagin. "Loyalty is a reciprocal concept — it goes both ways. You can’t say to somebody, 'You will be loyal to us' and then not give them a basic benefit of that loyalty. That does not mean they should get off for crimes that they committed. If you commit rape, murder, treason, you’re punished just like I would be. But if you served in the armed forces, you should not also lose the country that you served."