People driving across the border between the United States and Mexico saw an unusual sight over the past week: a man, dressed in a US Army Dress Uniform and wearing a red beret, marching on the Mexico-side of the border bearing a sign that says “Stop Deporting US Veterans.” The man is Hector Barajas and he plans to spend 40 days keeping vigil on the border of the United States, getting as close as he can to the country he signed up to defend but can never enter again.
While he planned to camp on the border for the entire 40 days, the Tijuana police do not allow tents near the border. Instead, Barajas must sleep in a tent city that has sprung up about a mile and a half from the border housing homeless Mexican citizens. However, he spends his days at the border, holding his sign and talking with those who stop to ask him about the problem that has affected him personally along with many other veterans who’ve been deported from the United States. While no government agency tracks this specific data, Barajas believes the numbers to be into the thousands.
Barajas legally-immigrated with his parents to America, and settled in Compton, California in the 1980s. He enlisted in the Army in the 1990s with the understanding from recruiters that he would be granted automatic citizenship at the end of his service. In 2004, nearly one in five US Army Recruiters were under investigation for lies like this and others told to encourage people to sign up for service and help them meet their monthly quotas.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down and the war in Iraq already just a memory, there has been no shortage of veterans who have been convicted of committing crimes since their discharge from the service. However if the veteran happens to be one of the many legal residents who are not yet citizens, they could be deported for life even after paying their debt to society with fines or imprisonment.
Honorably discharged from the military after reenlisting in 1999, Barajas felt “left behind.” He turned to substance abuse like many other vets which led to his eventual arrest in 2004 for discharging a firearm inside a vehicle. Barajas denies being the person who fired the weapon saying, “We were all on something. One guy thought he was being followed and popped off some rounds.” Still, he was convicted of the crime. He served three years in prison and then was sent back to Mexico – a land as foreign to him as an adult as it would be to any natural-born US citizen – for 20 years.
“I didn’t want to stay in Mexico,” he confessed. “There was nothing there for me and it’s rough out here. And [I am] not even in a third-world country like [where] some of the other guys [are sent].” So he came back illegally, was caught, and then permanently barred from the country he swore an oath to defend. This time he leaves behind a daughter, Lili. He will not be able to return to watch her graduate from high school; he will not be able to walk her down the aisle when she gets married; he will not be with her to see the eventual birth of his grandchildren.
Now in a run-down apartment in Rosarito, Baja California, Barajas operates a nonprofit organization, “Banished Veterans,” that serves to both raise awareness about the issue of deported veterans and as someplace for other displaced veterans to find help when they arrive in Mexico. He maintains a network of veterans from all generations who have been sent to or live in other countries as well. Using this information, he is able to help coordinate newly-deported vets to an already-entrenched network of other vets who are already there.
The vigil at the border is meant to call attention to these patriots who feel their adopted country has abandoned them. But it also serves as something of a walkabout for Barajas. He says he needs to “detach myself from this place, this computer, the internet” and spend some time in quiet contemplation, staring toward the country he still loves. “We wore the uniform” he says. “We hold allegiance to our country and would be willing to die for it even to this day. At least I would.”
During his first day on the line, according to a Facebook post, Barajas “was approached by about nine border agents, and they told me that the US was not deporting US veterans.” They continued to antagonize him, one allegedly saying “You have 30 days [until] Halloween to wear your costume,” meaning his Army Uniform. However, the border travelers tend to be less antagonistic, stopping to talk with him. One woman thanked him for his service and gave him 20 pesos, which allowed him to access the internet for the day.
He is struck by the poverty he sees in his camp, which only increases his desire to return “home.” When he sees “little children who juggle balls to make money” and other kids, he is reminded of his daughter, and why it’s so important to him to find a way back to the United States. He is preparing, after this vigil, to file paperwork for citizenship again, although it may be a futile attempt.
Congressional efforts to address this problem have been stalled. There was a measure proposed at the start of the 113th Congress that would have required the secretary of homeland security to personally sign off on every deportation request for a veteran, the bill was left to flounder in committee. In 2002, President Bush enacted a policy that allowed for expedited citizenship for immigrants serving in the military, but like many of the programs available to veterans when they discharge, most don’t know it exists, believing themselves to already be citizens.
Ironically, while Barajas and other deported veterans are barred from entering the country again themselves, they are eligible for military burial in the US after their death. Honorably discharged service members, even those deported, are eligible for $300 from the VA to aid in the cost of sending their remains back to the United States. All veterans like Barajas want is the same consideration in life, that the country gives them in death.