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Know the West

Only in death do some deported veterans return home

Military service comes with no guarantees of citizenship.

 

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. 

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/immigration-when-911-feels-like-a-ticket-to-deportation-undocumented-workers-turn-to-a-local-nonprofit-exploited]

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.