Deported Veterans Seek Support

A group of deported veterans, now living in Tijuana, served honorably in the military but are now banished from the United States.

"I didn't realize that they could deport me," said Oscar Pacheco Leyva. "Since I served my country honorably, I had an honorable discharge. I didn't think there was any chance of them deporting me."

Pacheco lives in a tiny apartment in Tijuana with several other deported veterans.

He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, grew up in Las Cruces New Mexico and served six years in the Army.

Pacheco said he has lasting hearing impairments from gun fire, not to mention diabetes and nerve damage, and he feels the U.S. government is not treating deported veterans like him with respect.

"Well, I feel like they abandoned me. I think that they should at least give me the VA treatment for my health. You know, doctors or whatever I need to solve it," Pacheco said.

A felony conviction for possession of cocaine for sale got the veteran deported, so Pacheco found refuge at the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana.

Director Hector Barajas is trying to track just how many deported veterans there are because U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement does not specifically track statistics on how many of the individuals removed from the U.S. have prior military service.

"We are working on a database, but the database consists of just people that we come into contact with," Barajas said. "So, every deported veteran that we come into contact with, we send them a Google Form that goes directly to an Excel spreadsheet, and that way we're able to have certain information on them on why they got deported, where they served."

His group now has 200 members with deported veterans from 23 different countries around the world.

ICE sent the following written statement about deported vets:

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans. Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with prior military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in an ICE field office, to include an evaluation by local counsel."

Many of the vets admit their deportation was their own fault. Barajas was convicted for discharging a firearm into a vehicle.

Colombian and U.S. military veteran Alfred Varon Guzman forged a signature on a check from someone he says owed him money and had given him the check.

"He told me 'Don't cash it until I tell you so.' That was my mistake. I signed it and I tried to cash it. So I take full responsibility for that," Varon said.

"I went in front of the judge. I pled guilty to a suspended sentence for an attempted forgery. That was 1988. I signed it. I left. And that was that. I forgot about it."

He forgot about it until nearly a decade later when the criminal history popped up on a security clearance for a job.

When he went to straighten it out with an immigration judge, he was immediately detained.

After fighting the case for five years, he missed a court appearance while in the hospital for spleen and galbladder surgery.

"I think I'm the only vet that was deported while in the veteran's hospital. I was in the veteran's hospital when I was ordered removed," Varon said.

A 1996 immigration law expanded the list of crimes considered to be "aggravated felonies." The law made some misdemeanor crimes result in permanent, mandatory deportation for non-citizens.

Soon after Varon was ordered removed, his mother's home was raided.

"Two officers came in, picked me up, walked me out," Varon said. "No clothing, no money, no idea, no nothing. I didn't even know where I was going. They said, 'We're taking you to Columbia.'"

Because he left with no ID or birth certificate, it took eight months for his birth country to recognize him as a citizen and give him an ID.

"We had never been there," Varon said, although he left the country for New Jersey when he was four. "I really didn't know that country because I hadn't grown up there. At the time, what I was worried and concerned about is they were in the middle of a civil, drug war, and being an ex-U.S. vet, was not nice."

Now, with holidays approaching, these veterans say they wish they could spend time with their family, who are mostly in the U.S.

But what Varon misses the most is feeling safe.

"I felt safe in the United States. I felt that I was someone there that people respected and looked up to," he said.

Barajas said he will eventually return to the U.S.-- even if it takes the rest of his life. When he dies, he is eligible for burial in a national cemetery like any other veteran.

"So I feel if I'm eligible to be buried as an American and be treated as an American when I die, why not let me live in the United States?" 

For now, he continues to work the legal system and the legislative system, rallying other deported vets and asking veteran support groups to lobby Congress.

Barajas said his support house is seeking donations for a holiday toy drive for children of deported veterans.

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