Joaquin Sotelo found himself only days away from being deported. That would have meant living in Sinaloa, Mexico, which he left with his mother and sister when he was 9 years old. It would also mean leaving behind his three children in the United States.
“Once you serve a country, you assumed that this country is going to look after you - and the system has failed drastically. The system has failed me,” Sotelo said.
Sotelo was a green card holder when he joined the Navy at age 19. After serving aboard a battle carrier group in the Red Sea, risking his life in the Middle East after 9/11, Sotelo said he filled out his naturalization papers, and with his superiors telling him he’d done all he needed to do, Sotelo thought he became a U.S. citizen. But he hadn’t.
Six years later, he left the U.S. Navy with an honorable discharge. Then, he got into trouble with the law, arrested and convicted for drug possession and domestic violence. After he served his prison sentence, Sotelo discovered he was being deported. That’s because of a Bill Clinton-era law that expanded the range of crimes that could trigger deportation. They’re known as “aggravated felonies,” and they include a wide range of crimes, even what many would consider relatively minor crimes like drug possession, petty theft and failure to appear in court. Under U.S. Immigration Court, any crime punishable by a year or more in prison is considered an aggravated felony.
An investigation by NBC Bay Area found more than 300 other veterans who’ve served honorably have already been deported for getting into legal trouble and serving prison time. NBC Bay Area’s first series of stories was followed by several U.S. Congressmen introducing a bill on Capitol Hill to change the rules and allow those deported veterans to return to the U.S.
Saved By Facebook Search
When she learned her brother was being deported, Sotelo’s sister went online and saw a story about a deported veteran named Hector Barrajas on Facebook. “That's where I saw his story about him being in the U.S. Army and then getting deported,” she said.
- See the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit's story about Hector Barrajas here, and story about his pardon by Governor Jerry Brown here.
Lilia Sotelo called Barrajas in Tijuana, Mexico. He put her in touch with Jennie Pasquerella, an immigration lawyer at the ACLU in Los Angeles. Pasquerella has documented the cases of hundreds of deported vets. She thought that if she acted quickly, she might be able to help Sotelo. She reached out to a San Francisco immigration firm called Pangea Legal Services.
At the Eleventh Hour, a Lawyer Appears
That’s how Etan Newman, a Pangea lawyer, found himself standing next to Sotelo in court.
“He could have been ordered deported that day,” said Newman, adding, “We just asked for more time at that first hearing, and the judge was willing to give it because Joaquin had an attorney.”
Newman came back to court with hundreds of documents showing that Sotelo had a long history in the U.S., that he’d served his country. “We showed the judge that the system had failed him over and over again ... that the military didn’t give him services he needed to come back home to deal with what he saw while he was over there. That helped the judge,” Newman told NBC Bay Area.
In fact, NBC Bay Area found that Sotelo isn’t alone in gaining more time and a more robust hearing before an Immigration Court judge once he got an attorney. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) last year, 90 percent of all people seeking asylum without an attorney in Immigration Court were denied. More than half with an attorney succeeded. That means people facing a U.S. Immigration Court judge were five times more likely to have their case resolved in their favor if they were represented by an attorney.
In Sotelo’s case, Newman convinced the judge that Sotelo wasn’t a flight risk and that he wasn’t a threat to the community. The judge released Sotelo on bond.
Sotelo is now living in a rehab home in San Francisco’s Sunset District, attending weekly sessions on anger management and seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist regularly. He’s also working for the VA and earning a regular paycheck.
Sotelo Sees His Children
And instead of finding himself in a country he barely remembers, Sotelo was reunited with his children just a week ago. He hadn’t seen them during four years of legal back and forth. His sister, Lilia, brought his kids to San Francisco from Los Banos, where they live with their mother.
While more fortunate than most immigrants facing deportation because he had an attorney, Sotelo also faces a constant fear that he’ll be deported and lose his children.
“Every step I take depends on deportation," he said. "It’s like a cancer. You know, it’s haunting me, and I don’t believe that we as veterans should be going through this.”
Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks spoke with the Investigative Unit in her role as union president with the National Association of Immigration Judges. “There is a wide consensus amongst many experts in the field that our current immigration laws are broken,” said Marks. "It’s extremely difficult to do without an experienced immigration lawyer.”
Sotelo’s next hearing is in August. He’s grateful that he’s been granted a reprieve, thanks to a broad effort that involved his family, the Veterans’ Assistance Bunker in Tijuana, the ACLU and pro-bono legal help.
“We all deserve a second opportunity,” he says. “And we all deserve to get our process of immigration done on the road to citizenship. Why not? That’s what America is all about.”
Since NBC Bay Area began reporting on deported veterans, U.S. Rep. Mark Desaulnier (D-Concord) co-sponsored a bill in Congress that would change the law and allow veterans who have been deported to return to the United States.
Other legislation for veterans and immigrants:
- Assembly Bill 386 to provide legal representation to foreign-born U.S. military veterans who have been deported under federal immigration law.
- Broader bill in California Legislature called SB6, would provide money for representation more broadly for people in deportation proceedings and is authored by Sen. Ben Hueso.