A U.S. military veteran deported to his home country of Mexico 13 years ago after serving time for a conviction received a full pardon Saturday from California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Hector Barajas was born in Mexico’s Zacatecas state and crossed the border illegally into the United States at age 7. After growing up in the U.S., he served in the U.S. Army from 1995 to 2001 in the 82nd Airborne Division.
After an honorable discharge from the Army, Barajas had a difficult time adapting to civilian life. He developed a substance abuse problem. He was in a car when a firearm was discharged and was convicted for the crime of shooting at an inhabited vehicle.
In early July 2002, Barajas was sentenced in the Superior Court of the State of California, in the County of Los Angeles, for the crime. Barajas served just over one year in prison and the same amount of time on parole. He was released on Sept. 2, 2004, after completing his sentence.
Upon his release, Barajas was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora.
In an interview with the Associated Press last month, Barajas described feeling “lost” that moment he found himself back in Mexico. Unsure of how to make a living, the military veteran crossed back into the U.S. six months later.
He was deported again in 2010.
At that point, he moved to Tijuana and founded a place called the Deported Veterans Support House – or “The Bunker” – a place where many deported veterans just like Barajas can get a little bit of help adjusting to their new life as deportees. There, Barajas puts veterans in touch with lawyers, psychologist and job counseling programs.
"I think the hardest part is being separated from their families and their kids," Barajas tells NBC7.
Once settled in Tijuana, Barajas went on to apply for executive clemency in the form of a gubernatorial pardon from the California governor’s office.
Brown granted that pardon on April 15.
“Since his release from custody, [Barajas] has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character and conducted himself as a law abiding citizen,” the governor’s pardon states. “Indeed, Mr. Barajas served in the United States Army and received the Humanitarian Service Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, among other awards.”
The pardon also mentions the veteran’s work with the Support House and adds that by completion of his sentence and good conduct, Barajas “has paid his debt to society and earned a full and unconditional pardon.”
With the pardon, Barajas could now apply for re-entry in to the U.S.
"I'm not perfect, you know, and I will never be perfect," Barajas told NBC 7 in an interview Saturday. "But I can sure try to prove to the people back home that I'm a better person."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California has served as an advocate for deported U.S. veterans like Barajas. In addition to requesting pardons for deportees, the ACLU is also supporting legislation at the state and federal level aimed at addressing the problems faced by deported veterans.
The group formed the Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported (HDDD) Coalition in September 2016 to advocate for an end to deportations of U.S. veterans and a pathway home for already deported veterans.
Via the ACLU, Barajas released this statement Saturday, following his pardon.
“There are no words to describe the joy I feel today. I thank God for the grace of Governor Jerry Brown and am eternally grateful to all of those who advocated on my behalf. I have dreamed everyday of returning to the country I love. We have taken a big step forward for deported veterans and their families.”
Barajas also posted a short video on his Facebook page in which he thanked Brown and everyone who has advocated for his pardon:
"This is huge," he says in the video, smiling and tearing up. "The process will be easier for me to go home to my family. I'm very thankful. I'm still at a loss for words."
San Diego-based politician Nathan Fletcher appeared alongside Barajas in the video and also praised the pardon.
“This is a significant step forward in our efforts and has the potential to make a life-changing difference for these veterans,” he said in a press release from the ACLU. “However, the sad reality is there are hundreds, possibly thousands of others waiting for help. We are renewing our call on Congress and the President to honor its commitment and ensure every soldier comes home.”
Fletcher took to Twitter Saturday to post a photo of him hugging a smiling Barajas as the deported vet looked at his pardon from the governor:
In the past, Fletcher’s wife – San Diego-based California State Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D – 80th District) has proposed a legal fund to help deported vets apply for readmission in the U.S.
Gonzalez Fletcher also expressed joy on social media Saturday on the news of Barajas' pardon:
Along with the pardon of Barajas, the HDDD also praised Brown for granting full pardons to two other deported California veterans: former U.S. Marines Erasmo Apodaca and Marco Antonio Chavez Medina.
“Brown’s action is historic and represents the first time that a governor has recognized and taken action to address the injustice of deported veterans of the United States armed forces,” said the HDDD. “These pardons help pave the way for the veterans’ eventual return to the country they took an oath to defend.”
According to this March report by the Associated Press, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it does not have figures on how many deported veterans have requested naturalization and that it considers each petition individually.
Editor's Note: This story previously erroneously reported that Barajas fought in Operation Desert Storm.