They can cross the border legally only as ‘dead’

Mario Rodriguez, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran. He should be eligible to receive a veteran's pension but cannot receive it because he was deported to Mexico. Rodriguez lives in veterans' shelter in Tijuana, on the border.


Tijuana / DPA

Hector Barajas was 17 years old when he joined the US Army. Born in Mexico, he crossed the border illegally when he was just a child. He was able to join the military after obtaining legal residency in the United States.
“When I enlisted they promised me that if I served the United States they would give me citizenship, but that didn’t happen,” he said. Barajas, now 39, said he served five years in a paratrooper unit of the army, and left
It was then that he found out that the promised citizenship was not automatic. On leaving the army, he fell into problems with the law.
“I was in a car from which somebody fired a gun, and they blamed me for it,” he told dpa. The incident earned him three years in prison and he lost any hope of naturalization, he added.
Barajas is among the veterans who have been deported for running afoul of US law, fighting for years to be able to return to the United States to receive medical care or collect their pensions.
According to section 316.2 of the requirements for naturalization of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, would-be citizens must demonstrate “good moral
A study released last year by the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) titled “Discharged, Then Discarded,” found that it was common for veterans of the armed forces to have problems with the law.
The majority of those deported were kicked out of the United States because they committed aggravated crimes or repeated minor felonies.
After serving his sentence, Barajas said he was deported to Mexico in 2009. Following several failed attempts to return to the United States, he decided to establish himself in Tijuana, a border city in the north of Mexico, adjoining California.
There he met other deported veterans like himself, and they established a shelter. The group has more than 60 members, and in addition to serving as a temporary refuge, the organization provides legal counselling and emotional support for repatriated soldiers.
Barajas says that since his deportation, he has met over 300 veterans sent back to Mexico. He believes that there are many more that he does not know since there is no official registry to serve as a reference.
He says he is also in contact via the internet with veterans deported to countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Canada.
The majority of those he knows of suffer from some form of physical injury received during military service or have health problems as a result of advanced age, since many served in past military conflicts such as Desert Storm in Iraq and even the Vietnam War.
All of them, Barajas notes, require medical attention, and even have the right to health services, but they cannot access hospitals for veterans because of their deportation. The elderly have the right to a pension, but to receive it, they must be legal residents in the United States.
Such is the case of 71-year-old Mario Rodriguez, who served for three years in the Vietnam War and still has his army documents. On his return from the war, he succumbed to alcohol and drugs.
Although he lived a relatively normal life for several decades, he racked up enough incidences of driving while intoxicated and drug-related detentions to earn himself an order of deportation in 2005.
“I know that what I did was wrong, and I’m not trying to excuse myself, but I did not come back well from the war,” he told dpa. He now lives in the Deported Veterans House in Tijuana because he has nowhere else to go, nor does he have any way of supporting himself economically.
The only way Rodriguez can cross the border legally is after he has died. The ACLU study describes as “tragic irony” that the deported veterans can only return to the United States for honourable burial in a military cemetery.
“How is going back when I’m dead going to help me?” asked Rodriguez. “I need my pension now.”
So far, only one of the Mexican veterans has managed to return to the United States and likewise, only one has secured access to his pension.
Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency has increased their concerns. “We don’t know what is going to happen now,” Barajas said. “The only thing we have left is to continue fighting like the soldiers we are.”

Hector Barajas, a war veteran who served as a parachutist in the US Army, poses in front of the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Luis Alonso PÈrez/dpa

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