Together in 'The Bunkers,' deported US veterans forge new paths and purpose

'At the very least, we can let them know they aren't alone,' says Iván Ocon, a co-director of a support center in Juarez, Mexico for veterans deported from the US. 'We can make the nightmare a little less scary.'

Jorge Duenes/ Reuters
US Representative Vicente Gonzalez (D) of Texas (center) poses with Mexicans veterans who have been deported from the United States, after they attending a meeting outside the Deported Veterans Support House, in Tijuana, Mexico on June 3, 2017.

When José Francisco López was deported from the United States 13 years ago, he felt utterly alone.

Deportees commonly struggle with depression and feelings of isolation, but Mr. López was different. As a legal US resident, he served in the Army for two years – one of which he spent in Vietnam during the war. He was honorably discharged, and was later arrested for buying cocaine and sent to prison. But López paid double for his crime: Once his prison term was complete, he was promptly kicked out of the country.

“I felt sad…. I thought I was the only one,” he says of being a deported veteran, living in the border city of Juárez while his children and mother are across the frontier in Texas.

But late last year, López connected with Hector Barajas, the founder of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana. López was surprised to learn he’s actually one of an estimated 230 deported veterans living in some 34 countries. At 73 years old, he decided to take action, turning the second floor of his modest home into a meeting space and dorm room for other US servicemen deported from the United States. It’s modeled after the Deported Veterans Support House, or Bunker, in Tijuana, which provides camaraderie and connects vets to services like mental health support and legal aid.

“There are so many of us,” López says. “We can help each other move ahead.”

Foreign-born soldiers have served in the US Army since its inception, fighting in every US war. In 2005, some 35,000 noncitizens were serving in the active military, with about 8,000 enlisting each year. 

Reintegrating into civilian life after service can be a challenge for anyone, and veterans of all stripes can end up on the wrong side of the law. But, for those who didn’t gain citizenship during their service – whether due to misinformation, bureaucratic mistakes, or misunderstandings – breaking the law can spell deportation after a prison term is up.

Among deportees, vets face unique challenges: from struggles with PTSD and physical injuries, to criminal gangs that target them for recruitment because of their military experience. Although many deported veterans in Mexico say they aren’t holding out hope that they’ll return home any time soon, they are working to raise awareness, appealing to US lawmakers for future vets’ sake. And in the meantime, they’re focusing on helping their “brothers” here find purpose and a path ahead, outside the country they were willing to risk their lives for.

“Our mission is to make the transition a little better,” says Iván Ocon, who recently joined López in directing the Juárez Bunker.  “At the very least, we can let them know they aren’t alone. We can make the nightmare a little less scary.”

Finding community

Mr. Ocon was honorably discharged in 2004 after more than a decade of service, including time in Jordan during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it was a tough adjustment. He couldn’t hold down a job, and became depressed, leading him toward drugs and alcohol. He asked about the status of his citizenship while in the armed services, he says, and was told it was on track. After six years in prison for aiding and abetting a kidnapping, he learned that wasn’t the case.

He doesn’t recall the judge’s exact language at his immigration hearing, but says the message was loud and clear: “My military service didn’t count for anything.”

“I felt betrayed,” he says.

Many deported vets have similar stories. Some say they were promised citizenship by Army recruiters, only to face labyrinths of red tape with little guidance. Others misunderstood the oath taken to protect and serve the country when they joined the Army, believing it automatically made them a citizen.

Many found support and created a network after learning about the Tijuana Bunker. It’s an orange and tan concrete building on a quiet street in Tijuana, next door to a mechanic’s shop. The glass around the front door is covered in fliers about deported veterans and Dreamer Moms, another group of deportees who share the space. On the ground floor, a line of overstuffed easy chairs are tucked tightly between two desks and a television set. A large American flag hangs above the chairs, along with photos of soldiers and posters calling for access to pensions and health care. Upstairs, dorm-like bedrooms with single beds covered in fuzzy blankets house veterans in transition.

“The housing is important, but we’re more of a resource center,” Barajas says. “We work to help secure [Veteran Affairs] benefits, help get [Mexican] IDs, find people lawyers while they’re still in the US facing deportation. We’ve even helped someone get a prosthetic foot.”

Many younger vets struggle with PTSD. The veterans also frequently face new variations of discrimination. “My whole life in the United States I was called a Wetback, and now in Mexico I’m called a Gringo,” says López.

Depression is overwhelmingly common, and Barajas says he often gets calls about suicidal veterans. Ocon, in Jaurez, can relate to that.

“I found out the only way they will take us back [into the United States] is in a body bag, and I thought, well, maybe that’s the way,” Ocon says, referring to the US policy to bury veterans – even those who have been deported – in VA cemeteries. 

'No longer under the radar'

The deportation of veterans began to pick up around 1996, when the US changed its immigration laws, taking away a judge’s discretion to consider factors like military service in deciding a case, says Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights for the ACLU in California and co-author of a July 2016 report on deported veterans.

But thanks to the work of deported veterans led by Barajas, the issue is “no longer under the radar,” Ms. Pasquarella says.

Last month, a group of seven US Congressmen visited the Tijuana Bunker to learn about the experiences of deported veterans. A bill was reintroduced in Congress in March that would provide support for future possible deportees and provide a pathway home for veterans who have already been deported. So far, it has the support of 51 lawmakers.

Many of the veterans seeking support from the Bunkers draw a direct line between their crimes and the challenges they experienced reintegrating into society after military service. 

“We made mistakes [that got us deported], but that doesn’t mean we have to pay for the rest of our lives,” says Barajas, who was brought to the US as a child and gained legal residency. He enlisted at 18, and spent six years in the Army. But his honorable discharge was followed on by drug addiction, and eventually a shooting crime that would land him in prison for three years.

“We have to take responsibility for our actions. We have to try to change those laws,” he says. “If we can’t ever go home, we need to at least do our part to be productive members of the country we’ve been deported to.”

The Bunker has had some success stories, like the vet who received his pension after years of fighting.

“It’s not that you’re jealous, but sometimes I do wonder, ‘What about me?’” says Barajas, who has been doing this work since his 2010 deportation.

Earlier this year, however, he got something “worth more than a million dollars:” He and two other veterans were pardoned for their crimes in the state of California. There’s still no guarantee he’ll return to the US, he says, but the pardon was an important step.

“Most of us are never going home,” Barajas says. “What can we do? Be negative? No. We just keep pushing forward.”

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