Deported Veterans Lengthy to Return From Exile. Some Will Get the Probability.

ROSARITO, Mexico – Alex Murillo leads a full life in the Mexican city of Rosarito, a 40-minute drive from the U.S. border near Tijuana. During the day he works in a call center and speaks in a cheerful, caring tone to retirees across the United States about their Medicare insurance. After work, he packs cleats, flags, and other gear in a duffel bag and sets off to coach a youth soccer team whose players credit him with honing their skills in American sport.

But Mr Murillo, 43, has no desire to stay in Rosarito, where he has lived for almost a decade. In fact, he doesn’t feel at all belonging in Mexico, a country he left as a child.

His home is in Phoenix, Arizona, where he grew up, joined the Navy, had four children – and later got into trouble. He was deported two days before Christmas 2011 after serving a prison sentence for transporting hundreds of pounds of marijuana.

Mr. Murillo is one of hundreds of immigrant military veterans who were deported to their native countries for life due to sometimes minor crimes committed after completing their military service.

“I’ve just been waiting for the day to come back,” said Murillo, who, like many days, wore an Arizona Cardinals hoodie. “Everything I do here is positive, but I want to be at home with my family.”

The wait, he hopes, is over.

The Biden administration said earlier this month that it will begin allowing foreign-born veterans who have been deported to return to the United States and help them become American citizens.

“We are committed to bringing back members of the military, veterans and their immediate families who have been unjustly deported and ensuring that they receive the benefits they may be entitled to,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, Homeland Security Secretary.

The announcement was significant to veterans who have been in exile from the United States, often for more than a decade.

Robert Vivar, co-director of the Unified US Deported Veterans Resource Center in Tijuana, estimates that there are at least 1,000 military deportees in about 40 countries. About two dozen have been allowed to return in recent years, mostly those who have had the slightest offense, such as owning a gun or driving under the influence of alcohol. Governor pardons have paved the way for some returns, though they can last for years.

But deciding who is eligible for readmission could prove difficult: some of the veterans have committed serious crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and, in the case of Mr Murillo, serious drug offenses, and it is not clear if they are all returning allowed to.

“How will you find out who was ‘wrongly deported’?” Said Hector Barajas, 44, a decorated ex-paratrooper convicted of car shooting in 2002 and after a pardon for ex-Governor Jerry Brown in 2018 returned from California.

What is certain is that the Veterans Affairs Department and other agencies will be tasked with helping a group of people who are most likely to need a range of services to help rebuild their lives.

Separated from their families, they have often seen their lives continue to divide in countries they had long since left. Her spouses have left her; their children got into trouble.

“It’s not like we’re home now, have a job and our families back,” said Barajas, whose activism first drew attention to the plight of the deported veterans.

As a US citizen, Mr. Barajas has struggled with depression and diabetes. It was difficult to get in touch with his 16-year-old daughter after his long absence.

“You will have a hard time getting acclimatized,” said Rudy Melson, president of Consultants for America’s Veterans, which helps veterans living abroad. “We will have to create resources, rules and programs. We owe it to these men and women who we kicked out to make them whole again. “

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have fought in major conflicts since the War of Independence. Honorable military service for a year or even a single day during the war gives them the right to expedited naturalization under the law. But it doesn’t happen often.

Some never apply, believe recruiters who told them that recruiting automatically confers citizenship. Submitting paperwork while on deployment abroad, especially in war zones, is a challenge. Some applications sent out by bases have gone astray.

Many veterans said they did not know they could be deported until an immigration and customs officer showed up at the end of their sentences. Many feel disadvantaged that they face additional sentences after serving their sentence.

“The land you were ready to die for threw you out like a piece of rubbish,” said Hector Lopez, 57, a US Army veteran who was deported in 2006 and now heads the deportation resource center in Tijuana.

However, critics of the blanket readmission say that any non-national who commits a serious crime faces deportation. “This is how the law works,” said Arizona Republican Representative Andy Biggs at a 2019 veteran deportation hearing. “There is no one else who would get an exception to this.”

Changes to the Immigration Act in 1996 made all green card holders more vulnerable to deportation by classifying some lower-level crimes as “serious crimes” for which deportation was made compulsory. Drug crime, theft, and tax fraud have all become grounds for permanent deportation regardless of military service.

Gonzalo Fuentes, who came to the United States at the age of 3 and served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, was deported in 1999 for hauling a 58-pound shipment of marijuana from Texas to Louisiana.

“I only transported marijuana once,” said 54-year-old Fuentes. “It’s enough to go up in flames.”

Desperate to return, he crossed the border illegally. He lived and worked in Corpus Christi until he was deported again in 2009 after being stopped over a broken taillight. This action added another crime to his file.

He currently lives in Cancun, where he comes in by selling vacation packages to Americans and Canadians. But he longs to be with his parents, who are not healthy enough to travel. “All I want is a second chance,” he said. The Biden government’s new promise, he said, “is my last hope.”

Mr. Murillo said he never thought of himself as anything but American.

“I grew up a normal American kid,” he said. “I’ve played baseball, basketball, and football.”

He joined the Navy in 1996 straight out of high school. At that time, his parents applied for citizenship and he could have been added to their application.

“Ma, don’t spend any money on it,” his mother Leticia Bernal said to her. “You’re giving me my citizenship in the Navy.”

Mr. Murillo served as a flight mechanic in the Middle East on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. In 1998 he was caught using marijuana on a Florida base and was eventually fired for bad behavior.

He returned to Phoenix in a broken marriage, and from there, he said, his life went on the downside. Still drugged, he lost his job installing satellite dishes and fell behind with child support payments after his divorce.

In April 2009, he agreed to drive a huge shipment of marijuana to St. Louis for $ 10,000 but was caught by a highway patrol officer.

He was sentenced to 37 months in prison and put on a bus to Mexico after his release in December 2011.

In Rosarito, he became a dedicated campaigner for deported veterans, calling members of Congress and making videos for the public. His name was added to that of the deportees painted on the border wall in Tijuana.

Back in Arizona, his children ended up in the care of the Child Protection Service. A few years later, his two sons began abusing fentanyl and living on the streets until Mr. Murillo had them taken to Rosarito, where he helped raise them up.

“They’re stronger when they’re close to Alex,” said his mother, Ms. Bernal.

After football practice recently, fellow coaching colleagues said they would miss Mr Murillo if he returned to the United States, but he said he deserved it.

“We’ll be more than happy when the coach returns – he paid his dues,” said one of the coaches, Gil Rodriguez.

Mr Murillo said he just wanted to be back where he felt he belonged.

“I grew up with ‘Scooby Doo’, ‘Andy Griffith’, ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Price Is Right’, Oprah, baseball – all the American things,” he said. “Everything I am is American.”

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