It was about 7:30am when I woke up to the sound of a street vendor outside my window. Even though it was early Sunday morning, US Army Specialist Hector Barajas had already fixed breakfast and cleaned the “bunker”, which doubles as his office & living space. Eight years prior, Barajas started the Deported Veterans Support House (DVSH), otherwise known as the bunker to the roughly 100 deported U.S. veterans residing in the Tijuana area.
Although Tijuana has become the de facto capital for deported U.S. veterans, Mexico is hardly the only country. “We get guys from all over” says Barajas as he shakes his head in slight disbelief. Although the U.S. Military does not release data on how many U.S. veterans have been deported, Barajas tells me they’ve worked with veterans from Italy, South Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico.
To trace the origins of this dilemma, one should start with the recruitment process. To enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces, one must be a citizen or a legal green card holder, meaning, you cannot be undocumented. Citizenship can be earned by serving, but it is not automatic and it still takes time. Recruiters know this, but many youth are misled anyway. Barajas fondly recalls signing paperwork in his living room, less than a week after high school graduation, where military recruiters told him and his parents he could earn his citizenship just by serving. From the handful of deported veterans I’ve worked with in Tijuana, most were led to believe citizenship is automatic with enlistment. None could imagine a scenario where they’d be deported all those years ago.
In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was signed into law by President Clinton. The act created Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and made it easier to deport an individual convicted of virtually any non-violent felony or misdemeanor. A few years later, as U.S. service members began returning from conflicts in Afghanistan & Iraq with PTSD symptoms, deportation of non-citizen U.S. veterans began in spike. Not all veterans struggle with PTSD, nor do all veterans struggle with addiction, nor do all have criminal convictions. But while a veteran with U.S. citizenship would receive counseling and treatment through the VA, a foreign-born veteran with the same struggles would be placed into deportation proceedings.
For Barajas, immigration issues began shortly after returning to civilian life. After receiving an honorable discharge, Barajas fell into problems with substance abuse which led to firearms charges. He pleaded guilty in 2002, and immediately upon release in 2004, Barajas was deported. Shortly thereafter, Barajas re-entered the U.S. to be with his family but was deported a second time in 2010 after being pulled over.
As he recalls those early years in Tijuana, he revisits those memories with a chuckle: “Those first couple years were tough, man”. But in 2012, Barajas founded the Deported Veterans Support House after building a network of deported U.S. veterans living in Tijuana. At first, Barajas had to learn how to navigate the bureaucratic gymnastics of the VA. But after properly filing for the financial benefits for dozens of veterans, Barajas moved onto a bigger task… medical care.
What I find most fascinating about Hector is his unwavering dedication to his country; why he continues to fight to return to a country whose government has betrayed him. So I asked him, why are you still fighting? After all you’ve been through, why would you want to return to the U.S? And in his signature charismatic form, Hector grins and says simply “Because I love America.”
Stupid me. Duh.
One of the major roadblocks facing DVSH was finding help for veterans suffering from severe PTSD. To receive medical care, a veteran must visit a facility approved by the VA and while it’s fortunate that one facility does exist for veterans living in Mexico, it’s located 1,700 miles away in Mexico City. This might not seem like a big deal, but for deported U.S. veterans suffering from PTSD, traveling 1,700 miles for weekly treatment is a death sentence.
Fortunately Deported Veterans Support House scored a major victory in late 2016. After years of fighting with the bureaucratic forces of the VA, a medical facility was approved in Tijuana, mere blocks from ‘the bunker.’ After years of tireless work on behalf of DVSH, U.S. veterans were finally able to get the help & care they need.
By 2017, Hector Barajas was a force to be reckoned with. Through his activism & work to launch the DVSH, he had become the face of the deported veteran issue in the United States. He had appeared in countless articles and documentaries, hosted several State & US Senators (including Bernie Sanders) and in November, a protest Barajas had organized adjacent to the San Ysidro border crossing went viral.
Within a couple months, Barajas’ role had caught the attention of California Governor Jerry Brown, earning him a pardon of his earlier 2002 conviction. With a clean record and an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Barajas was eligible to re-apply for citizenship.
Finally, after being deported for 14 years, 82nd Airborne Spec. Hector Barajas crossed into the U.S. and swore the oath of a United States Citizen on April 13, 2018.