‘I am an American’: Efforts to bring back deported veterans are underway


Richard Avila has lived in Tijuana for 11 years, but not by choice.

Although born in Mexico, he is a deported American veteran who has not given up hope of returning to where he lives: Los Angeles. For now, he’s keeping his apartment in the city’s Colonia Postal minimally furnished, ready to pick up and move in at a moment’s notice.

As he earns his living working in call centers, Avila is also closely following developments in the United States. President Joe Biden has pledged to bring back non-citizen veterans who were wrongfully deported and last year unveiled plans to offer relief.

A first step was the creation last July of the Immigrant Military and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI). The effort brings together the United States Veterans Administration with the Department of Homeland Security to support non-citizen service members, veterans, their families and caregivers. The collaboration led to – among other things – last year’s COVID vaccination clinic for deported US veterans at the San Ysidro port of entry.

In February, DHS and the VA launched an online portal for deported veterans to apply to return to the United States or access benefits.

And while it’s too late for those already deported, veterans who are not U.S. citizens can expect to have their military service considered if they break the law. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month announced a new “policy directive to consider U.S. military service when determining civil immigration enforcement action against non-citizens. “.

Hector Barajas, a deported veteran, is encouraged by the progress of recent months.

Hector Barajas, a deported veteran, holds up proof of his citizenship in 2018, flanked by Nathan Fletcher. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“A lot of guys who I thought would never be able to go home come for heart surgery or whose mother has cancer. There are so many reasons guys are coming back right now,” he told me. “It’s been super amazing.”

Barajas returned to the United States in 2018 and is now a US citizen. But he continued to lobby on behalf of deported veterans as director of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana. He credits the IMMVI program with enabling the return earlier this month of his wife Yolanda Varona, a deportee he met in Tijuana.

Still, Barajas and other defenders say more needs to be done. Ramon Castro, a Navy veteran and Brawley City Council member, called the Biden administration’s efforts a “good start.” But non-citizen service members need more permanent protections, he said.

“What worries me is that it changes from administration to administration,” he said. “So the very next president could, in fact, change that policy.”

Led by U.S. Representative Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, a group of six California congressmen — including Juan Vargas — are working to bring about lasting change. This month they introduced a bill, the Veterans Service Recognition Act. The legislation aims to protect non-citizen service members and their families from deportation and to open pathways to citizenship. It calls for the creation of a DHS “Military Family Immigration Advisory Committee” to review cases of veterans and non-citizen service members in deportation proceedings.

When I spoke to Avila, the deported veteran, last week, he told me the new measures offered him little chance of return. Still, he remains hopeful.

Avila was 18 months old when he moved to the United States. He enlisted in the Marines after high school, when the Vietnam War ended.

While serving, he helped evacuate the United States Embassy in Saigon. But he also became addicted to heroin and received an other than honorable discharge after being caught with drugs in his pocket.

“I was returned to society without any rehabilitation,” Avila said. “My addiction followed me for the next 20 to 30 years of civilian life.”

To support his addiction, Avila turned to crime – and served five years after pleading guilty to armed robbery. Because he was a permanent resident – not an American citizen – he was eventually deported to Mexico. But he continued to return to the United States and served three years for illegal re-entry. Now 67, he has lived in Tijuana since 2011.

He knows his chances of returning to the United States are slim, even with the Biden administration’s new measures. But believes he deserves a chance.

“I’m American, being American is an identity,” he said. “I volunteered at 17. That should count.”

Also note

  • Car lanes in the Tijuana River Canal: The state of Baja California wants to create special lanes in the Tijuana River channel for drivers heading to the US border via San Ysidro. The proposal aims to reduce congestion on Tijuana’s busy freeway called Via Rapida Oriente, which runs parallel to the canal. Any such project would have to be approved by Mexico’s National Water Commission, which controls the water channels. (La Jornada, El Imparcial)
  • Shelter for Muslim migrants: The first Muslim shelter for refugees and asylum seekers in Tijuana opened its doors last week in the city’s Zona Norte. (Union Tribune, Channel 8)
  • In the footsteps of asylum seekers: A dozen students from Jacobs High Tech High School at San Diego’s Liberty Station walked from Campo to Julian on a hike that honored asylum seekers. (KPBS)
  • Daylight saving time: A proposal by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to eliminate summer time in Mexico is causing concern in Baja California. The state business community is urging that the country’s northern border regions be exempted, saying it would negatively affect cross-border trade and other cross-border trafficking. (El Sol de Tijuana)
  • Haitians in Tijuana: The Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit with offices in San Diego and Tijuana, has helped cover the costs of 12 Haitian migrant funerals in Mexico since December. Some died in violent attacks, or sought medical attention and were rejected by hospitals and clinics – or both. (Union-Tribune)
  • Gay Pride: Just in time for Tijuana’s Marcha de Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride March) on Saturday, independent online magazine Punch takes a look at the city’s gay bar scene. Writer Emma Glassman-Hughes describes Tijuana as “a swirling site of transience and transformation.” Photographs by Carlos Moreno. (Punch, El Sol de Tijuana)
  • Border town: The Sunday edition of the Union-Tribune included a special section on my 26 years as a reporter for the newspaper covering Tijuana. The text is taken from Border City, the podcast I co-created with editor Susan White for the Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. It was a difficult project, but I leave grateful for the strong and humble support to have had this rare opportunity to share stories about a city I have come to love.

Contact Sandra Dibble with story suggestions at [email protected]


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