This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
As a young man, Hector Barajas was unburdened by questions of citizenship and belonging. “All I knew was that I wanted to be G.I. Joe,” Barajas said of his early interest in the military. He was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, to a family of ranchers. Later, he would lose much of his memory, the result of a concussion sustained in a parachute jump exercise, but the day his parents left their ranch in search of work in California remains tucked firmly in his mind. A year after they left, 7-year-old Barajas and his two sisters were reunited with them in California. None had arrived legally, yet within a decade they would all become lawful permanent residents, allowed to live and work in the country and eventually apply to become citizens. When Barajas turned 17 he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and his path to citizenship appeared all but certain.
But Barajas discovered life in and after the military isn’t all parades and patriotic displays from a grateful public. Some veterans struggle and fall on hard times. When they run afoul of the law, they are punished like any other citizen, unless they are immigrants—then their fate is often deportation.
No one knows how many veterans have been deported, least of all the government, which has never taken a full accounting. Barajas helped change that. The 42-year-old’s improbable journey, from decorated military veteran to deportee and eventual U.S. citizen, has raised important questions about what makes a citizen and what is owed to those who have served and are deported just the same.
“I, Hector Barajas, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
When Barajas recited those words during his oath of enlistment in 1995, he believed they had imbued him with U.S. citizenship. The confusion is understandable: The oath of naturalization has a nearly identical clause. Yet there was still the matter of administrative paperwork, a formality he understood the military would complete on his behalf.
For years the military has given incorrect information or no information about the naturalization process to recruits, leading many to believe, as Barajas did, that they became citizens when they took the military oath. Even for those who managed their end of the process, the government often neglected or lost their paperwork, according to a 2016 ACLU investigation. That changed for a time in 2009 when an initiative was passed that gave noncitizen enlistees the chance to naturalize after basic training. But the tide has turned again, with Trump administration officials ending the program in early 2018 and shuttering naturalization offices at all its U.S. Army basic training sites.
The Trump administration has also established even more convoluted rules for foreign-born soldiers, drastically slowing naturalizations, explained Margaret Stock, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and an immigration attorney who works with deported soldiers, including Barajas. “It’s basically chaos right now,” Stock said. “Soldiers can’t figure out how to fill out the required forms and no one has done anything to educate them.”
And even while noncitizen veterans are left behind by false or misleading promises from the U.S. military, U.S. immigration in general has become increasingly stricter. In addition to their year of military service, veteran applicants for citizenship must also prove they are law-abiding members of society for a minimum of one year to show “good moral character.” This legal requirement, imposed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, has become the mechanism by which most noncitizen veterans get deported, because of a change to immigration law in 1990 that made an aggravated felony conviction a lifetime bar to demonstrating “good moral character.”
This good-moral-character requirement has long been central to expanded restrictions on immigration. For example, when Congress passed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, nearly two dozen crimes were added to the category of aggravated felony. Suddenly, filing a false tax return or failing to appear in court became aggravated felonies and a lifetime bar to demonstrating good moral character. Arguably more significant was the decision to strip immigration judges of their discretion to weigh the events surrounding a crime, or the steps taken to amend mistakes. So if a noncitizen who served in the U.S. military is convicted of an aggravated felony, they will most likely be deported, despite their service or any other mitigating circumstances.
The military has long relied on men like Barajas to fill out its ranks. U.S. Census data show that half of all military recruits in the 1840s were foreign born, and about 20 percent of the Union Army during the Civil War were immigrants. Indeed, immigrants have served in every major conflict, from World War I to Desert Storm, and between 5,000 and 9,000 more immigrants from dozens of countries still enlist each year, significantly from Mexico, Jamaica, and the Philippines.
Citizenship has never come easy to the foreign-born, yet as far back as the Revolutionary War some people have attained citizenship status through military service. Decades later, amid the heated debate surrounding the place of Black Americans, military service was again considered a viable argument for taking the measure of citizenship, defining its boundaries and terms. “The unfolding of that debate is the first sustained exploration about who is a citizen,” said Martha S. Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. The battlefield had been a proving ground for Black Americans during the Civil War. However, Black Americans ultimately settled on the birthright claim, codified in the 14th Amendment in 1868. “It is a presumption, they argue, that cannot be rebutted by racism,” Jones said.
A century ago the question of belonging turned on Asian immigrants. At the time, virtually all Asians were barred from immigrating to the U.S. under a series of exclusionary laws. For Asian soldiers who fought in World War I, citizenship wasn’t guaranteed until the passage of the Nye-Lea Bill in 1935.
The current policy on naturalization of immigrants in the military dates to World War I. The policy, as pitched by recruiters, seems pretty simple: During peacetime, the main requirement for immigrants serving in the military to become American citizens is honorable service for a period of one year. During times of hostility, such as the current period stretching back to September 11, 2001, soldiers aren’t even required to be green card holders—they only need to be physically present to enlist.
Today, enlisted immigrants still aren’t guaranteed a clear path to citizenship, and deportation for veterans remains a very real threat. In fact, the only certain path back to the U.S. for a deported veteran who leaves the military on good terms is death—upon dying, their remains can be transported back to the United States for a military burial. The Department of Veterans Affairs even chips in to cover the cost. But the possibility of deportation or even death hasn’t seemed to put a damper on the promise that enlistment offers to the foreign-born. Barajas gave it no thought at all.
Without the structure of the military, some veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life. They hold fast to the aggressive hard living encouraged in the service. Post-traumatic stress can go untreated, and some turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in any given year as many as 20 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, and 10 percent of veterans of those same wars also have substance abuse disorder, yet many never seek treatment. Veterans suffering from these conditions are more likely to engage in risky behavior that can lead to run-ins with police and legal troubles.
Barajas’ battle with substance abuse started in the military. He hoped to extend his service in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, but after he was ticketed for driving under the influence, his drinking had become a problem the Army could not ignore. He was honorably discharged in 2001. Back in Compton, California, Barajas was involved in an altercation and a gun was fired. Nobody was injured, and Barajas still denies that he was the one who fired the gun, but he took the fall. He pleaded guilty to illegal discharge of a firearm, and was sentenced to three years in state prison. With a felony on his record, Barajas—who had still not received his citizenship—would be deported when he got out. It made no difference that Barajas was a decorated paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. His service, awards, and medals counted for nothing.
Even when procedures are built into the system to help immigrant veterans, they haven’t always worked. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this past June found U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not consistently follow internal policies meant to give special consideration to noncitizen veterans facing deportation. Agents are required to consider the veteran’s overall criminal history, health, community service, as well as military service, including war zone deployment and decorations awarded. However, the GAO found these protocols were often ignored because the agency was unfamiliar with its own policies.
Barajas went to prison in 2002, serving two years of a three-year sentence. When he got out, ICE agents were waiting for him. His aggravated felony charge had triggered an ICE detainer, and he was taken to an immigration detention center. Unlike the criminal justice system, immigrants facing deportation aren’t provided legal representation, and Barajas didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer. He tried to reason with the immigration judge, but his crime had made it impossible to demonstrate good moral character. Barajas recalls the judge thanking him for his service, right before ordering him removed from the country. As a result of the deportation, Barajas also lost his green card status.
“I thought surely somebody would find out and put an end to the travesty,” Barajas said. Instead, he was swept up in a rising number of deportees being dumped in Mexico’s lap. Soon after, he went to work on his family’s ranch in Zacatecas, but it became clear early on that it was not financially sustainable, and most importantly, he missed his family.
He left the ranch after a few months and got in a long line of northbound cars at the Tijuana–San Diego port of entry with the hope of entering the U.S., even though he had no legal right to cross the border. A U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement Officer asked only if he had anything to declare, and Barajas didn’t hesitate. “No,” he said. The officer waved him through, but the existence of an unauthorized immigrant is precarious. The slightest misstep can derail everything. One afternoon, on his way to work, Barajas was in a fender bender that led to a second deportation. This time he had to accept that he might never go home, at least not alive.
The realization awakened an activist streak in him. He converted his apartment in Rosarito, Baja California, into a refuge for forgotten soldiers, a space he named the Deported Veterans Support House. The men and women who frequent the house affectionately refer to it as “the bunker.” It is a place where they can video chat with family back in the States, seek advice on where to find work, and discuss how to navigate the life of a veteran as a Mexican civilian. Mostly, the bunker is where exiled soldiers find camaraderie. A second bunker opened in early 2017 in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas.
Barajas’ advocacy didn’t stop at the bunker. He focused on the things veterans are owed regardless of their place of residence: A veteran can access medical care abroad, at least in theory. But to qualify for benefits a VA doctor must perform an examination, so the veteran must live in a community that has a VA medical facility or embassy to arrange for a VA doctor to examine them and administer benefits. In 2018, Barajas’ activism paid off with the opening of a VA clinic in Tijuana to determine the eligibility of deported veterans for government healthcare and benefits.
The clinic was a bittersweet victory. While searching for medical assistance for a fellow deported veteran in 2015, Barajas persuaded members of the ACLU to visit the bunker. Unfortunately, the veteran died from pulmonary fibrosis before he could receive a life-saving lung transplant. But attorneys and volunteers with the ACLU documented 59 cases of deported veterans, or ones in deportation proceedings, from 22 countries, profiling them in the report “Discharged, Then Discarded,” a detailed account of the federal government’s failure to naturalize immigrants in the military.
Over the past few years, deported veterans have garnered the attention of state and federal lawmakers, prompting a flurry of legislative proposals, which can be differentiated by approach. The first would ensure that soldiers are naturalized before being discharged from the military. The second set of proposals focus on repatriating veterans who have been deported, except for veterans who were convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, or terrorism-related offenses. None of the bills passed the 115th Congress; two have been reintroduced this session. At the state level, California’s social services and veterans affairs departments are partnering with a pro bono law firm to provide legal services to deported veterans who meet California residency requirements.
Despite his otherwise harsh immigration policies, President Donald Trump suggested in 2017 that he might consider legislation to help deported veterans. However, the administration appears to have cooled on the idea. Rather than assuring foreign-born soldiers citizenship, the Department of Defense announced a policy in October 2017 that increases scrutiny of immigrant enlistees. In the wake of shifting policies, citizenship applications have plummeted and denials are on the rise. Immigrant soldiers are more likely to see their attempts at citizenship rejected than foreign-born civilians, according to recent U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
For deported veterans, the only legal path home with an aggravated felony conviction, aside from death, is to receive a pardon from the president or from the governor of the state where the crime took place. Neither is easy to come by, though it isn’t impossible. In April of 2017, then California governor Jerry Brown pardoned Barajas, along with two other deported veterans. All that was left for Barajas to complete his citizenship application was to pass the English and civics portion of the naturalization test, and stay out of trouble for a year to show good moral character. He did them all with ease, and became just the second deported veteran to naturalize and return to the U.S. There have been several more veterans to receive pardons, at least one of whom became a citizen a year prior to Barajas.
Barajas is grateful to be back home with his family, but after all he’s been through he worries the welcome mat may be pulled out at any moment. “I have to be honest,” Barajas said, “I’m still worried they might change their mind.”
The prevailing nativist sentiment argues that building walls is necessary to defend our borders and preserve the integrity of citizenship, a rationale built on an invented national identity. Immigrants are alienated from the mainstream by the foods they eat, languages they speak, and religions they practice, all of which are offered as evidence of an inherent otherness. Then they often see those very things that made them an other appropriated by the dominant culture.
Barajas’ deportation forced him to think about what it means to straddle identities. The country he swore to defend had abandoned him over a morally dubious law, yet somehow he emerged from the experience feeling more patriotic, while at the same time feeling closer to his Mexican roots. The two aren’t necessarily in conflict, says Miguel Diaz-Barriga, a professor of anthropology and the chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Richmond. “Their Americanism is not your Iowa Fourth of July type,” Diaz-Barriga said. “They do not see a contradiction between being American, speaking Spanish, and praying to la Virgen.” Mexican or American, Barajas doesn’t have to choose—he is both.
“I was born in Mexico, and I’m proud of my heritage, but the U.S. is my country,” Barajas said. “I think it’s simple: When we enlisted we took an oath, a permanent oath as some of us say; it never ended when we took off the uniform. There is no higher form of citizenship, and many have paid the ultimate sacrifice to earn it.”
If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.