Only in death do some deported veterans return home

Military service comes with no guarantees of citizenship.

  • Five days before the burial of Jose Raúl López Jiménez, a deported U.S. Army veteran, funeral home employees load his casket into a hearse in Chihuahua, Mexico. López's body was returned to Hobbs, New Mexico, for a military burial a few days after he was murdered by an unidentified gunman at his own home in Chihuahua.

  • From left, Ramon López, Danny López and Eddie López gather inside their mother's home in Hobbs, New Mexico, before the funeral of their brother, Jose Raúl López Jiménez. The brothers and their mother traveled to Chihuahua, Mexico, when they heard López was shot. After authorities analyzed the crime scene, the brothers had to clean up the aftermath, including the blood on the floors.

  • Graciela López cries as she stands next to the casket of her son during a private family viewing. Jose Raúl López Jiménez was unable to gain access to VA-approved hospitals and clinics while in Mexico. His mother stayed with him at a hospital in Mexico for nearly two weeks until he died.

  • Manuel Valenzuela, left, and his older brother Valente Valenzuela, both Vietnam War combat veterans, say their goodbyes to López. The Valenzuela brothers have been fighting their own deportation since 2009, when they both received removal notices for previous misdemeanors, despite the fact that they had already served their time. They have been active in raising awareness about the problems facing deported U.S. military veterans.

  • Graciela López, second from left, is comforted as her grandson, Justin López, cries during the rosary for her son the day before his burial.

  • The brothers of Jose Raúl López Jiménez guide his casket out of the church on the day of his burial.

  • At the funeral Mass in Hobbs, New Mexico, his brothers stand in the front pew of the church.

  • A photograph of Jose Raúl López Jiménez lies next to a guide to the Roman Catholic funeral Mass rites.

  • Jose Raúl López Jiménez was deported in 2008 following a narcotics conviction, even though he’d already served his sentence.

  • Army National Guard Honor Guard Spc. Marcia Perez, left, and Sgt. Michael Trujillo stand at attention during the burial of deported U.S. Army veteran Jose Raúl López Jiménez.

  • Army National Guard Honor Guard Sgt. Michael Trujillo presents an American flag to Graciela López during the burial of her son, who was deported despite his service to the nation.

  • At her home, Graciela López writes to the president of Mexico, describing her son’s situation as a deported U.S. military veteran. She hopes to bring the issue to his attention. “I ask with all the pain in my heart, of a mother that suffered the death of her son … to please help those still waiting, so that they may have hope to return home,” she writes.


 

In the past century, more than 760,000 noncitizens — asylum seekers, refugees, DACA recipients and others — served in the United States military, fighting in both world wars, Afghanistan and Iraq.

They were often rewarded with a fast track to naturalization. After Sept. 11, for example, noncitizens were able to naturalize immediately upon enlisting. But often, while military service helps, it does not guarantee citizenship. Lawful residents convicted of crimes can find themselves deported instead of naturalized.

All combat veterans face challenges adjusting to civilian life. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); others turn to drugs and alcohol. Between 2011 and 2012, approximately 8% of incarcerated persons had served in the military.

Support for veterans is something that unites people across the political spectrum. But veterans who lack citizenship often find that respect for their service ends the moment they get into trouble. After their sentence is served, they face a second and more harrowing punishment: deportation. Their only guarantee of returning to the country that deported them is in death, for a military burial that they are entitled to. 

The Government Accountability Office says at least 92 veterans were deported between 2013 and 2018. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not collect data on veterans, and many advocates who work with deported veterans believe the number is much higher. Hector Barajas-Varela, a deported veteran who gained citizenship after being pardoned by California Gov. Jerry Brown, founded the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, to promote naturalization of veterans. In congressional testimony in October 2019, he said he knows of at least 300 veterans who have been deported and suspects there are thousands more.

Jose Raúl López Jiménez was one of those veterans. He saw active duty in the U.S. Army between 1980 and 1983 and was honorably discharged. He was later convicted of a felony narcotics charge and served time in prison. Upon release, he attended routine parole meetings. Then one day López was detained by immigration officials, and six months later, in 2008, was deported to Mexico.

In autumn 2019, López was shot and killed after a gunman broke into his Chihuahua, Mexico, home. Later that month, his body crossed the international border — the geopolitical boundary that for so long separated him from his family in Hobbs, New Mexico. At his funeral, a member of the Army National Guard handed his mother an American flag. And as relatives and friends — including other veterans fighting deportation — looked on, his casket was lowered into the grave. He was home at last.  Jessica Kutz, assistant editor

Joel Angel Juárez is a freelance photojournalist based in El Paso, Texas. His work focuses on immigration policy, the environment, healthcare, the criminal justice system and issues concerning America’s military veterans. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.