“When I got back from serving, I remember walking through the airport terminal. It was awesome ya know. So many people came up to me and thanked me for my service. I felt like a hero,” said Hector Lopez. Hector’s a big guy with a big truck and a little dog named Sammy. We’re talking and listening to Bon Jovi as he drives me back to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. He’s completely American in every way save for his actual citizenship.
I ask him if he still likes to be thanked for his service. He’s conflicted. “I know they mean well. I know what they are saying, but if they really support veterans, we all wouldn’t be stuck down here.” “Here” is Tijuana. Lopez points out that the current Trump Administration didn’t start the deportation of military non-citizens but admits that it has gotten worse.
The Department of Defense officially closed the MAVNI Program (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) in December of 2016 in anticipation of the new administration. According to the Department of Defense, non-citizens have been fighting alongside Americans since the Revolutionary War. Valued for their unique knowledge of foreign cultures, languages and other skills, immigrants have always been a highly valued part of our military. In exchange for their service, immigrant soldiers wearing the American uniform could apply and receive their citizenship. Fiscal year 2017 saw over 7,300 soldiers naturalized. 2018 dropped to just over 4,100 and is expected to drop to zero soon since the program was shut down.
Veterans like Lopez and Robert Vivar of Unified U.S. Deported Veterans were deported years ago. Most deported veterans found themselves on the other side of the border when they returned from their service with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whether they were recognized by the Veterans Administration (VA) as suffering from PTSD or not, most found themselves lost in the vast sea of bureaucratic red tape that is the VA and turned to alcohol and drugs. The ability to organize oneself and obtain their naturalization certificates was not even in the picture. Day to day survival with PTSD and suicidal ideation was all consuming for many.
The story writes itself again and again: enlist, PTSD, alcohol and drugs, convicted of various crimes, deportation. For many, deportation means living in a country that they have never known. “I came to the States when I was six. I am an American.” Vivar told me he never understood what it meant to be Hispanic until he was deported to Mexico. “I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to do the things American boys did.” Deported veterans I spoke with don’t deny their crimes. All did their time, paid for their sins. American soldiers who are citizens are not strangers to the exact same situations their deported brothers and sisters find themselves in. The only saving grace they have is that they are citizens.
In 2014, ex-Marine Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi drove into Mexico with three guns in his car. Arrested and charged by Mexican authorities, American leaders were in an uproar and demanded his release. Republican Representative and veteran Duncan Hunter of California even wrote a letter to then Secretary of State John Kerry demanding he do something to secure his release. Tahmooressi was eventually released and has been diagnosed with mental issues related to his service according to various news outlets. In 2016 he was arrested in Indiana for possession of narcotics and paraphernalia. Trump was even willing to pardon a U.S. soldier convicted by a military court for murder as he did this past Monday because he is a citizen.
The same courtesy has not been bestowed to those veterans who are not citizens.
Sundays at Friendship Park in Tijuana is an opportunity for deported American veterans to gather. They share their stories while a young Honduran woman awaiting her asylum hearing in the U.S. volunteers to serve them bowls of pasole soup and bread. It’s not lost on me that this Central American migrant who has been labeled a criminal by my government is showing more patriotism and kindness to American veterans than our draft dodging president does. Supported by Veterans for Peace and volunteers, this weekly event is the only support the deported veterans find in navigating the system. Some are here just to find some food, clothing and/or shelter.
These men and women have served our country and been discharged honorably. They suffer mentally and physically from that service, and our government has thrown them away like an empty coffee cup. Thanking veterans for their service is an empty gesture. It means nothing of you don’t back it up with any action. You can help these soldiers by calling your senators and representatives and demanding they repatriate and support H.R. 1078 – Repatriate Our Patriots Act.
This article originally said Hector Lopez served in Iraq. He has reached out to say that isn't the case. We've corrected the opening quote to reflect his clarification and regret the error. - Karoli Kuns, editor