Discarded & Forgotten: The Long Journey Home for Deported US Veterans

I started working with deported veterans living in the Tijuana area in 2017. The aim of this project is to capture the dangers of ignorant immigration policy in the United States as well as dispel some of the stereotypes that plague this topic. These photographs attempt to depict the human collateral of an archaic immigration system that shows blatant disregard for the nation’s Veterans. I want the audience of my photography to truly question what “support the troops” really means.

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My objective for this project is to capture the dangers of ignorant immigration policy in the United States as well as dispel some of the stereotypes that plague this topic. My photographs depict the human collateral of an archaic immigration system that shows blatant disregard for our nation’s Veterans. I want the audience of my photography to truly question what “support the troops” really means.

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Armando is a Panamanian citizen who was a legal US resident for over 30 years, where he served as a staff sergeant in the US Marine Corps for 8 years. He comes from a large military family: his grandfather was a Pearl Harbor survivor, his father served in Vietnam, his niece is currently in the Navy and nephew serves in the secret service. He never naturalized as a US citizen because he never felt pressure to; Panama has a close relationship with the US and it was never an issue when traveling abroad or passing thru customs. In 2009 he was pulled over as he was driving a coworker and himself to work. He did not know his coworker was undocumented. Regardless, he was jailed before being turned over to an ICE detention center. According to Armando, the detention center was hell with conditions so deplorable, he went before a judge and begged to be deported just so he could leave. While he could have fought his deportation, he could not afford an immigration lawyer. As I’m getting more into this project, it’s clear that the system is broke, and our elected officials have done little to fix it.

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It’s kind of astounding how many misconceptions are out there regarding deported veterans. The biggest is, yes, legal residents and green card holders can join the military, undocumented cannot join. Many military recruiters target young immigrant men with the belief that they will automatically earn their citizenship, but this is not the case. On top of that, a 1996 law signed by Bill Clinton expanded the cases in which any immigrant can be deported, including non-violent offenses such as drug possession, DUI, and theft. Many of those being deported are dealing with substance abuse problems, exasperated by PTSD from tours of Iraq, Afghanistan and other US military conflicts. My hope for this project is to apply pressure on our elected officials to provide treatment for veterans in need, rather than take the drastic and expensive measure of deporting someone for a minor, non-violent offense.

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Hector served in the us army until his honorable discharge in 2001. After being deported for DUI and firearms charges, he started the deported veterans support house in Tijuana to assist other veterans facing a similar fate. Since most of these veterans have no contacts in their birth countries, the support house helps newly deported veterans with housing, food, job search resources, the bureaucracy of VA benefits, and how to navigate life in a country unfamiliar to themselves.

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Since receiving an honorable discharge, both of the men above were deported for charges stemming from substance possession. Like so many other deported veterans, the root of these men's addiction stems from PTSD developed during years of service in conflict areas.

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The fence straddles the US-Mexico border that separates Tijuana from San Diego, and serves as a meeting place for families who cannot cross the border to visit in person. Every week, a church service was takes place with pastors on either side of the fence praying for forgiveness, understanding, and family reunification between both nations. 

I’ve explored a lot of conservative publications to try and document the stereotypes that plague deported veterans. I’ve learned that most Americans are unaware that:

-To enlist, you must be a legal US resident. You cannot be undocumented.

-Military recruiters approach immigrant communities with the promise of automatically earning your citizenship, despite this being un-true.

-Misdemeanors and non-violet offenses of any degree can be a cause for deportation.

-In most states, Judges cannot consider a veterans military service when delivering sentencing.

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On April 13th, 2018, Spc. Hector Barajas of the 82nd Airborne of the US Army was invited to the USCIS building in San Diego to swear in as a US Citizen. His previous conviction was commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown of California, making him eligible to re-apply for his citizenship. Spc. Barajas became only the second deported veteran to return home, while hundreds continue to reside in limbo on the other side of the border fence. Barajas was deported in 2004 after serving time in prison for firearms charges, and spent the next 14 years fighting for his right to return to the country where he was raised.

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After a private swearing in ceremony flanked by his family, ACLU San Diego Executive Direction Norma Chavez-Peterson introduced Spc. Hector Barajas to a large crowd of supporters, activists, journalists, and photographers. Despite the overwhelming elation caused by obtaining his citizenship, Barajas announced he would return to Tijuana the following week to continue fighting for the hundreds of other deported veterans still living in Tijuana and elsehwere.

 Spec. Hector Barajas of the 82nd Airborne Division moments after swearing in as a U.S. Citizen.

Spec. Hector Barajas of the 82nd Airborne Division moments after swearing in as a U.S. Citizen.

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 U.S. Rep. Mark Takano

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano

 Left to right: Rep. Mark Takano, CA Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, Spc Hector Barajas, and ACLU San Diego executive director Norma Chavez-Peterson.

Left to right: Rep. Mark Takano, CA Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, Spc Hector Barajas, and ACLU San Diego executive director Norma Chavez-Peterson.