Hector Barajas, a deported veteran, was sworn in as an American citizen today in San Diego. He’d been working on regaining legal status in the United States for 14 years. Surrounded by his family, supporters, and dozens of TV cameras, he began with a tearful prayer, “Dear Heavenly Father, I want to thank you today, for this opportunity to be home with my family.”
It’s a major turn of events for a man who has been cut off from his family in California for the past 14 years, and forced to scratch out a living in Tijuana Mexico. “My dream is to put my daughter through college, find a job, continue to help others,” he said.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit first visited Barajas in Tijuana, Mexico in early 2017, revealing that he was among more than 60 veterans who were deported to Mexico. More than 300 have been deported to other countries.
Barajas was a decorated soldier in the Army, where he served from 1995 to 2001 as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. Like a lot of veterans, he developed problems with drugs after leaving military service. He was arrested in 2002 and charged with firing a weapon into a vehicle. No one was hurt, but Barajas went to prison for a year, followed by another year of probation.
Then came the stunning news. All along Barajas believed that as a soldier he was automatically a U.S. Citizen. His Army recruiters, he said, “had promised citizenship.” But Barajas’ crime was among a list of offenses known as Aggravated Felonies. That list was expanded in the 1990’s during the Clinton presidency to include even minor crimes like drug possession and failure to appear in court. Under those laws, a non-citizen who commits such a crime can be deported.
Barajas was brought to the United States as a child by his parents, and established legal residency. But after his run in with the law, an immigration judge revoked his green card. Barajas was deported in 2004 to Mexico, a country he barely knew.
Once in Mexico, he found dozens of other vets who suffered the same fate. Barajas organized meetings and clinics on how to survive in Mexico, where jobs pay a small fraction of U.S. wages. The small shop where he works and sleeps came to be known as “the Bunker,” a place where veterans regularly go for job leads, immigration advice and camaraderie.
“It’s a horrible injustice,” said Nathan Fletcher, a Retired Marine and former State Legislator. He’s been help Barajas and other veterans by raising funds for legal help and pushing for new laws that would grant citizenship to all veterans who have been honorably discharged from military service. “Anyone willing to die for their country should have a country willing to give them citizenship,” he said.
For Hector Barajas, that battle is over. A pardon from Governor Jerry Brown gave him a clean slate, and allowed him to apply for citizenship. He plans to continue working in Tijuana to help his fellow deported veterans.
“My biggest dream,” he said, “is to see all my brothers and sisters (deported veterans) go home.”