Tijuana, Mexico - Looking around the room where Hector Barajas spends the majority of his time, you could easily forget you’re in Mexico. American flags, G.I. Joes, and military dog tags line the walls.
“I wanted to serve my country,” Barajas recalls, of his decision to join the United States military, where he served 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army from 1995 to 2001.
But he sits in Tijuana not by choice.
“I was picked up by immigration and deported in 2004,” he said.
The phrase “deported veteran” may not be a common part of most people’s vocabulary, but they exist—and there are many.
The military does not keep and make public an official count of deported veterans, but the ACLU, which assists deported veterans, including Barajas, estimates the number is easily in the thousands.
“One of the most difficult things is being separated from your kids,” Barajas says, referring to his 11-year old daughter who still lives back in California with her mother. “I try to call her everyday in the mornings when she’s going to school, and we Skype.”
Barajas was born in southern Mexico. His parents had crossed the border illegally some time earlier, and when Barajas turned 7, Barajas—along with his sister and a cousin—crossed over to meet them. They succeeded and spent the majority of their upbringing in southern California.
He considers the U.S. his only real home.
“It’s where I grew up, it’s where I studied. I did everything in the United States.”
It’s also where he took an oath to defend that very same country.
But shortly after his enlistment ended in 2001, Barajas says he made a mistake. He was convicted of “shooting at an occupied motor vehicle” and sentenced to prison. Not long after his release two years later, he was picked up and deported to Mexico.
He made it back to the U.S.—“snuck” back home, as he says—and was able to remain until authorities stopped him following a fender bender in 2010. That lead to his re-deportation.
He’s been fighting to become a permanent citizen ever since. California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned him last year, erasing that conviction off his record. That, he says, gives him hope that citizenship may not be far off.
But in the meantime—and for the last 5 years—Barajas has devoted his time to helping other deported vets. He created the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana.
“I basically started doing this full time and turning my apartment into a support house [in 2013] and then it just took off from there,” he says smiling.
It’s a place where recently deported veterans can get help with benefits, compensations and benefits they may be owed, even medical assistance.
He says they’ve had about 40 people in total utilizing the shelter as a temporary place to live. Barajas says one of the hardest parts about being deported is losing your support network and going through it all in what for many of them is a strange land.
“When you get deported some of us really don’t know the country that we’re deported to. We may not have been to this country since we were children.”
He wants anyone enlisted in the U.S. military to know one thing: just because you have legal permanent resident status and you join the military, it does not guarantee that you will automatically become a citizen. You have to actively pursue citizenship.
“When I got my green card, it’s a legal permanent resident card,” Barajas says. “I thought it was permanent. But its not permanent.”
As for the crimes he and other veterans may have committed that lead to their deportation, he says every makes mistakes—but they should be allowed to pay their debt to society and remain in the U.S.
“Regardless of what these individuals have done they should still be allowed to stay in the U.S. with their families,” he said.
Now, the only way he may be guaranteed to get back into the country he calls home is when he dies since he would be eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.