TIJUANA, MEXICO – Several hundred people gathered on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border on March 22 to mourn the death of Gonzalo Chaidez, a deported U.S. Army veteran who died of tuberculosis two weeks before.
A small table with a folded American flag, flowers and photos of Mr. Chaidez pressed against the border fence, creating a shrine for friends, family and other loved ones to pray and pay their respects.
Next to it was another small table with bread, wine and the Bible, to be used during the communion that would follow the Sunday morning memorial service.
Mr. Chaidez was born in Durango, Mexico, but he joined the U.S. Army and lived in California for over 50 years before being deported, according to his sister Maggie Salcedo.
“His letters to me during the past four years reflected his desire for all of his family to forgive him and his desire for each of us to find the peace he found,” she said from the U.S. side of the fence during the service.
Mr. Chaidez legally returned to the U.S. to rest with his 89-year-old mother and other family members the only way a deported veteran can – deceased.
During the last four months of his life, Mr. Chaidez lived at the Deported Veterans Support House, a nonprofit organization in Tijuana that provides shelter and services to rehabilitating and homeless deported U.S. military veterans.
“There’s a lot of men that are dying that aren’t receiving treatment, like Gonzalo,” said Hector Barajas, founder and director of the Deported Veterans Support House. “He died of TB, which could have been treated in the United States. Somebody like Gonzalo should have never died in Mexico separated from his family and without any medical care.”
Mr. Barajas has come into contact with deported veterans from over 26 different countries.
Like those with whom he has connected, Mr. Barajas is also a deported veteran. Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. with his family as a child where he lived in Compton, Calif., until the age of 17 when he joined the U.S. Army.
All the veterans at the Deported Veterans Support House speak to each other in English because they still consider themselves Americans. They spent most of their lives in the U.S. before deportation.
Deported veteran Alfredo Varón, former U.S. Army, was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, and moved with his family to New Jersey at the age of 4.
After he turned 18, Mr. Varón was approached by an Army recruiter on the street. He told the recruiter he wanted to go to Europe but he did not have an American passport.
“This guy fed me this sales pitch about how good my life would be in the Army,” Mr. Varón said. “You’ll be able to travel all throughout Europe without a passport. You won’t need one.”
During his time in service from 1995 until 2001, Mr. Barajas had applied for citizenship but said he never followed up on his application because, during the time, there was a three-year waiting period.
Mr. Barajas said he started abusing alcohol during his time in service, got a DUI and was separated from the Army with an honorable discharge.
Shortly after his discharge, Mr. Barajas served three years in prison for pleading guilty to California Penal Code section 246.1, which partly deals with crimes involving “unlawful discharge or brandishing of a firearm” from or at a vehicle.
“I never really became a civilian, I ended up going straight from being military to going to prison to going to federal detention… and then getting deported,” he said.
“Homeland Security gave an official report that they deported 57 veterans in 2009 and that each year it was doubling,” Mr. Barajas said. “I think the number’s higher than that, because, when I got deported in 2009, part of the intake was never to ask somebody if you’re a veteran.”
Mr. Varón received an honorable discharge, attended Small Business Administration classes and workshops through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and started a delivery business in New York.
He said he never experienced any immigration issues during his time at the VA nor while starting his business.
“To be honest, in New York we never even knew what an immigration officer was,” he said. “There were never any problems back then [with undocumented immigration], it was just a total non-issue at the time.”
In 1988, Mr. Varón was doing business in Tucson when a client gave him a check with the amount filled in but told him not to cash it.
Mr. Varón saw a check cashing establishment with a sign saying no I.D. required, so he signed the check and tried to cash it.
After waiting for 20 minutes, a police officer arrived and arrested him.
Desperate to return to his business in New York, Varón signed a plea bargain admitting to attempted forgery, unaware the plea bargain could bring him to immigration court.
“That was one of the worst mistakes I’ve made, I signed a plea bargain,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a U.S. Marine veteran and first-generation American citizen, deals with immigration cases often as his district has a “heavy Latino population.”
“The best way for us to assure that our veterans stay here is to ensure that everyone gets due process, that they have proper representation, that they know their rights and that they’re not automatically pleading guilty,” Mr. Gallego said.
“When you sign a plea deal… you’re pleading to a crime, you’re guilty of it, and that’s what makes you deportable,” explained Jonathan Solorzano, a recent Arizona Summit Law School graduate who is working under a supervising attorney specializing in immigration and criminal law.
Mr. Gallego and Mr. Solorzano spoke during a moderated discussion panel hosted by Arizona State University Student Veterans Association’s downtown chapter after a video presentation about deported veterans.
In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Immigration Responsibility Act, which was, according to Mr. Solorzano, intended to “get tough on immigration” by securing borders and addressing how to deal with illegal aliens living in the U.S.
Ten years after Mr. Varón signed his plea bargain, he had to renew his Department of Defense clearance to maintain shipping contracts. The clearance renewal was refused and he was told to go to a federal immigration building.
Mr. Varón said everybody got “caught in the net” of the 1996 law, which called for the deportation of terrorists and criminals.
“I thought, ‘how am I associated with terrorism?’ On the contrary, I was fighting against terrorism,” Mr. Varón said.
During the time Mr. Varón was fighting his case in immigration court, he became ill with hematoma and had his spleen removed.
He was recovering at the VA hospital after the operation at the time of his court date, so his doctor signed a note stating he could not leave to attend court.
Three days after being released from the VA hospital and recovering at his mother’s house in Arizona, the house was raided and Mr. Varón was arrested.
“These guys came in like a SWAT team,” he said. “I couldn’t even get up because I still had the stitches from my operation.”
Mr. Varón was taken to Eloy and deported to Colombia.
According to Mr. Gallego, immigration was not a big issue before 9/11 and immigrants did not consider getting citizenship because the borders were more open then.
“Now, if you’re in the military and you’re a legal immigrant, you’re going to be asked about and encouraged to join the expedited process,” he said.
According to Sgt. 1st Class Daryle Hamilton, the center commander for an Army recruiting station in Virginia, immigrants with residency can enlist in the U.S. military. However, the available jobs are limited because non-citizens cannot receive a secret security clearance.
Mr. Hamilton said that recruiters are required to ask whether or not a recruit is a citizen, but added that citizenship paperwork is only started at the Military Entrance Processing Station.
“If they’re not citizens, MEPS… will initiate the paperwork that is required for them to get citizenship,” Mr. Hamilton said.
Mr. Hamilton also said that the citizenship application is not required to enlist in the U.S. armed forces, so MEPS is not required to finish or even initiate an application for citizenship.
He said if an application is not submitted, the recruit is told the application for citizenship can be completed once the recruit arrives at his or her unit after training.
Units are not required to initiate citizenship applications unless a service member specifically requests to do so, Mr. Hamilton said.
The problem with that, Mr. Solorzano said, is that service members do not always know they can apply for citizenship or that their application was never completed at MEPS.
Mr. Solorzano said another problem is that the chain of command does not investigate citizenship because many immigrants speak English and are assimilated to the American culture because they have been in the U.S. nearly all of their lives, despite being born in a foreign country.
In 2002, then-President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13269, providing “expedited naturalization” for immigrants serving in the U.S. military during and after 9/11.
“After you leave the Army, you have six months to apply for citizenship to qualify for the expedited process,” Mr. Solorzano said. “A lot of [veterans] don’t know about it. They leave the Army, start working, doing something else and then they fall out of that program.”
Retired Navy veteran Steven Borden directs the Arizona State University Pat Tillman Veterans Center and also teaches a veteran student success class.
During a previous class, Mr. Borden said he had a U.S. Marine veteran student from Haiti who had to renew his status as a resident alien, apply for citizenship or fall into an illegal alien status.
“Through their service, there is an accelerated pathway to citizenship,” Mr. Borden said. “The problem is, that pathway is not always easy for them to execute.”
The Haitian student could not pay the fees required to renew his residency nor apply for citizenship because the education benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill were barely enough to provide for him and his family.
A WhiteHouse.gov 2014 immigration fact sheet stated that the Department of Homeland Security will focus on the deportation of “national security threats, serious criminals, and recent border crossers.”
Mr. Barajas will be fighting his case in the immigration court under the precedent set in Covarrubias Teposte v. Holder, a 2011 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the discharge of a firearm is not a felony.
If he wins, his lifetime ban on applying for citizenship will be lifted and he will be eligible to apply for residency and citizenship through Executive Order 13269.
A family friend transported Mr. Chaidez’s ashes across the border into the U.S., where, like all other deported veterans, he has only one entitlement – a military funeral.
“His legacy is his smile and his faith,” Ms. Salcedo said between sobs. “Many of us need influence, power, wealth, but all he left was his smile and his faith.”