Deported military veterans living in Mexico say they are hopeful that a recent dinner between a freshman Democratic congressman from McAllen and President Donald Trump will open the door to their return to the United States and make it harder to deport those who served in the military.
“We’re very, very hopeful that things are moving forward,” said Hector Barajas, a deported veteran who runs the Tijuana-based Deported Veterans Support House, which serves as the nerve center of the effort to organize deported veterans. “We’re excited. I think it’s definitely a start that the administration is having this conversation.”
On Monday night, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez met with Trump for a private dinner, during which the men discussed a range of border-related issues, including deported veterans. Gonzalez said that Trump agreed that the deportation of military veterans needs to stop.
“It was toward the end of our dinner,” Gonzalez said. “I said one last thing before we end; I think we need to end the deportation of our veterans.”
Gonzalez said he told Trump the story of Gerardo Armijo, whose family brought him to the United States as an infant and who suffered major injuries from an IED blast in Iraq. After returning home with a Purple Heart, Armijo began to self-medicate with illegal drugs and after a handful of possession arrests, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered him into deportation proceedings in 2015. While a judge released him from detention, he is still awaiting a final decision on his case.
Gonzalez said Armijo is one of hundreds or thousands of non-citizen veterans who face deportation after struggling with psychological injuries after war.
“(Trump) right away said ‘That’s wrong. We need to stop that,” Gonzalez said. “I feel really solid about this happening.”
Gonzalez said he is finalizing a bill that would both make it harder to deport veterans who served honorably and allow those who have been deported to return home. He said veterans who commit crimes like murder, rape or terrorist attacks would not be eligible.
Numerous bills aimed at helping deported veterans have failed in recent years, victim to congressional gridlock on immigration issues.
But Gonzalez said he has worked to secure Republican support and has found a co-sponsor in U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. “I camped out on the other side of the aisle for weeks before meeting with the president,” he said. “I want to make sure it’s successful.”
Gonzalez said he hopes to file the bill within 30 days.
For deported veterans, Gonzalez’s and Trump’s dinner moment represents their best opportunity for new legislation in recent years.
“For me, this is the one, brother,” said José María Martínez, a Marine veteran who fought in Vietnam before being arrested on marijuana trafficking charges and being deported. “If ever, ever there was a chance for us deported veterans to get some help returning legally, this is the one.”
During the election, Martinez, who lives in Nuevo Progreso, across the border from the Rio Grande Valley and was featured in a 2016 Statesman investigation on deported veterans, said he supported Trump and believed he would take up their cause.
“Trump is pro-military and pro-veterans so my thought has always been that with President Trump on board he would help us out,” Martínez said Friday by phone from Mexico.
The Trump administration did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
On the campaign trail Trump hinted veterans deserved extra consideration before being ousted from the country, saying during one event: “I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a special situation, and I could see myself working that out. Absolutely.”
It’s unclear how many veterans have been deported in recent years since the U.S. government does not track the issue. But immigration experts say the number has grown in recent years as deportations overall have increased.
Nearly all the deported veterans were legal residents of the United States who, for a variety of reasons, failed to finish the naturalization process and then were convicted of crimes after they got out of the service.
Gonzalez was one of seven members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who visited the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana to meet with deported veterans and discuss legislative efforts to help them return. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, also made the trip.
According to Gonzalez, there are about 10,644 non-citizens currently serving in the U.S. military and an additional 11,524 non-citizens under reserve status. The countries most represented are Mexico, Philippines, Jamaica, South Korea and the Dominican Republic.
Gonzalez said that since the trip he has been contacted by deported veterans across the globe, in places like Germany, Turkey and the Caribbean.
Several veterans deported to the Mexican border with Texas say they have struggled to fit in and earn a living in a country they left as children, according to the Statesman’s investigation.
Carlos Torres, a 61-year-old Vietnam-era veteran earning less than $1 an hour as a security guard at a Reynosa factory was deported in 2010 after serving four years on marijuana delivery charges.
Like many deported veterans, Torres, who has nine U.S.-born children, including four sons who served a combined 11 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he feels like a stranger in the land of his birth.
“I look American. I act American. I dress American,” he says. “I am an American.”
WHAT WE REPORTED
A 2016 American-Statesman investigation found a number of deported veterans scattered throughout Mexican cities along the Texas border, many of them struggling to make a living in the midst of grueling drug cartel war. During the election, many believed Donald Trump would seek to help them return if he was elected.