Tijuana, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO.- Hector Lopez peeks through the steel gate at Friendship Park on a Sunday morning as I approach the scene. We link pinkies, the only form of saying hello for people separated on either sides of the southern border. A United States Army veteran, one would imagine he was on the Playas Tijuana side on vacation. But he isn't. Hector Lopez finds himself in Mexico, deported from the country he was willing to die for. “If I could explain it in one way, it would be like getting punched in the face, slapped in the face and kicked in the nuts at the same time, ‘cause that’s how it felt because I was willing to give my life to defend and protect the rights of everybody in the United States. Not only for my kids, not only my family, your family, their family...everybody!"
Serving the nation in the reserves from 1982 to 1988, Lopez mentions that in combat, legal status does not serve as a divider, but that changed when he was deported after committing a crime. "Nobody ever asked me if I was an immigrant. In the battlefield, nobody cares if you're an immigrant. Why? Because your life's on the line! Whether an immigrant kills someone who's trying to kill me, or an American citizen does it, to me it's the same. 'You saved me, thank you!' There's really no difference on the battlefield between an immigrant or an American citizen. We're the same, we're veterans: combat-trained and ready to do our jobs. Everything's the same until we get out. We discover that because we're not citizens, if we get in trouble, we find ourselves being deported," he states.
To many, the idea of a deported veteran may seem foreign. A non-citizen can serve the country so long as they are a permanent resident, have a high school diploma, speak English, and have a right to work in the United States. According to research, approximately 80,000 non-citizens enlisted in the forces between the years 1999 and 2010. The top two countries of birth for these non-citizens are Mexico and the Philippines.
For decades, the country has allowed non-citizens to enlist so long as they are permanent residents. Their rights are forfeited after serving if they commit a crime, causing many to face deportation.
I ask Lopez how hard it is for him to be so close to the United States, but not be able to step on its soil. He shares that the most important thing is to feel the support when you're stuck on the other side, which is why they provide that sense of brotherhood at the Unified Deported Veterans Resource Center in Tijuana, the center he founded. "We're pushing through, we're hanging on. We're surviving...because I want to go home," he says.
On the outskirts of Tijuana, just a few feet from the border, the resource center, also known as “The Barracks”, provides legal, mental and emotional support for veterans going through the same nightmare as Lopez. One of those nightmares is seeing their dream far off, and that's because the only way that a deported veteran can stand on American soil once again is in a coffin. Alex Murillo, a deported Navy veteran, knows about the irony all too well.
"Another sad disgraceful thing is a benefit we get once we die. Once we die, our remains are carried back to the U.S. and we are buried in a military cemetery with honors. A folded flag is given to our families and then we are deemed good enough to be on American soil, and that's just sad. How is that honoring the soldier? How is that honoring the veteran? How is that honoring our lives and our sacrifice? It's not," he states with frustration.
Like Murillo, veterans who find themselves on the southern side of the border go through a mix of feelings, one being longing. Luis Vargas, a USMC veterans, recalls vividly the day he found out he was getting deported. He shares that after serving a sentence in prison, he was surprised to know he wouldn't be going home like he had planned. "I thought I was going home, big time! We went to chow and when we came back there was this post-it on the window saying, 'Louie, ICE is here for you, you're not going home.' My heart just sank.'"
I asked him what the deportation process was like for him that day many years ago. He becomes emotional at the memory. "One by one you're rattling off your name and your social security number, the one you used to have,and you're going through. But there they are. You're in Mexico now and the Mexican authorities are saying 'Bienvenidos',and they actually give you a hug, a burger, chips, a pepsi, coke, whatever you want. And they're saying 'We welcome you,'" he recalls as tears stream down his face.
Like many, Luis can't seem to understand the treatment they received after serving the country. "It breaks my heart because it takes a country that I don't even know of, you know, is actually showing me the love and not the one I actually served.I'm able to see how they treated me, the only country I've ever known. The country I've been pledging allegiance to since kindergarten! The way they kicked us out and the way the country I never got to know or still now knowing, the loved that they showed. It just doesn't seem right, it doesn't seem fair. Here we are, honorably discharged, dishonorably discarded,"he says.
"Discarded" is how most of the veterans feel once stuck on the other side of the border. Felipe Perez, a veteran from the Marine Corps, said he felt disappointment. "Oh man. You've got all this hatred. You feel like you were used, you know? And then they just throw you like that. It makes you wanna almost regret everything you did," he shares. With all those feelings inside him, Perez says that he tries to keep his mind off of the situation. "I don't try to think about it. I just stay busy, go jogging, listen to music. But I don't think about it because the more I think about it, the bigger stomach ache I get," he admits.
Like Perez, those who find themselves deported to a country they are not familiarized with can experience severe issues, like mental health problems. Robert Vivar, co-director of Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center, shares that the only thing they can do is hold people’s hands through the tough situation.
"We recently had a deported veteran deported about six months ago, suffering from severe PTSD. An Afghanistan combat veteran, saw heavy combat and when he got here, he started suffering and going through the struggle of suffering with his PTSD. Some of that struggle was manifested through suicidal language. You know, it's very concerning, it's very stressful because you feel powerless. How can you help them? Pray a lot," Vivar shares.
Deported veterans often struggle with not only their PTSD, but also suicidal thoughts.
Above all their struggles, what the deported veterans in Tijuana want most is for people in the United States to pay attention to what they are going through and bring them back home to their families.
"I would tell the folks back home to take a look at us. Recognize us. You can measure us. Poke and prod us, it's been done before. And at the end of the day you'll see that we're nothing if not American. We're out here fighting to get back home. We are your U.S. soldiers. We are your U.S. veterans and we fought and were willing to die for you. So we would appreciate a little bit of help out here. We could definitely use it," Murillo states.
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