Some American veterans get kicked out of the country they served

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. On this Veteran’s Day, I want you to imagine you are a vet. You’ve served, been deployed, maybe even gotten injured, maybe you’re decorated. And then despite all that, you get back Stateside, only to be told you’re deported. These are complicated stories quite often, not cut and dry, but they are painful for the vets who get deported, and we’re going to speak to one of them now. Hector Barajas was born in Mexico but grew up in California. He was a legal permanent resident when, in the mid-1990’s, he enlisted in the US Army. These days, he lives in Tijuana. Hector, tell us first why were you deported?


Hector Barajas: I was deported in 2004 for a criminal conviction. I was in a vehicle where there was a discharge of a firearm and I did a prison term of 2 years. But I did serve with the 82nd Airborne and put my life on the line on various peacetime operations, jumping out of airplanes. But we have many veterans that have Purple Hearts, that have served in Vietnam and the Iraq War, Afghanistan, Gulf War, Kosovo, that are decorated, that are being deported.


Werman: So you served, and yet, you and many other deported veterans admit you were convicted of various criminal offenses and the law says that you have to be deported. So, why should the US government have done anything differently in your case?


Barajas: When we went overseas or when we wore the uniform, we’re United States soldiers. When we come back from whether it was Vietnam or whether it was Iraq, we didn’t have immigration checking our status or checking to see if we had green cards or US citizens. At that same time, if I die today, I can be buried as an American and then the United States government would pay for it.


Werman: Do any vets who are set for deportation, do they ever appeal?


Barajas: You can appeal; we had a guy who appealed it. He was in detention for almost over 7 years. So, a lot of men, they get tired of it, being separated from their families. They just give up.


Werman: There once was a time when signing up for the armed forces in the US meant you got citizenship. What happened to that?


Barajas: There is a lot of promising of citizenship. A lot of the veterans, especially during the Vietnam era, they thought that they were made US citizens, but that wasn’t the case. So, what happens is is there’s misinformation and they’re not being counseled, they’re not being given information that they’re not US citizens and they have to apply. So, it’s also the fault of the soldier for not making sure that paperwork is done. There is a faster path towards citizenship now and they have programs in place, but that was not the case when we were in.


Werman: After you got deported to Mexico, what was life like?


Barajas: I pretty much said “I’m not staying in Mexico,” and I ended up going back to the United States illegally. I got caught in 2009 and then that’s when I pretty much decided to stay here and try to raise awareness about what’s going on. I’m the director of “Deported Veterans Support House,” so I have men here who either get deported or that have been deported.


Werman: What do you actually do for them?


Barajas: We help them find work, we connect them with attorneys, and we connect them with other veterans. We’re also a hub, since nobody is really taking on the issue, for deported veterans. Right now, we have veterans deported to 21 different countries, so I have them reach out to me from Trinidad, Jamaica, Italy.


Werman: And all these people from all these countries, they’ve all served in the US military?


Barajas: They all served in the US military and they all had legal status. There are a few that got deported for no reason, but the majority of them had some kind of criminal conviction.


Werman: Tell me about just one of them, one of these veterans who sought shelter with you in the past. What’s their story?


Barajas: Let’s talk about Al’s case. Al is from Colombia, he served in the US Army, 91 Bravo, during the Vietnam War. He’s deported for writing a bad check for $300.


Werman: A bounced check?


Barajas: A bounced check, yes. It’s insane. So, there’s no violence tied into some of these cases. No matter what you did, at the very least help them with their VA healthcare.


Werman: What does Veteran’s Day mean to you?


Barajas: Veteran’s Day means to me -- we honor our veterans and we’re not being honored because we’re not at those Veteran’s Day parades. I remember being in the United States and being able to even get a free meal at Applebee’s. But those are the little things when I think of Veteran’s Day. Being there with our brothers. But the most important thing is our families, because I’m separated from my 9-year-old daughter and she’s a beautiful little girl and it is a struggle every day.


Werman: Hector Barajas in Tijuana, Mexico. Thanks very much for speaking with us today and we tip our hat to you on this Veteran’s Day.


Barajas: Thank you.