Deported veterans at Hector Barajas's safe house, which is opening in an event in Mexico today.
Hector Barajas, a former paratrooper in the U.S. Army, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Rosarito Beach, a seaside Mexican village 15 miles south of the border. Barajas, 36, has lived near Rosarito since 2009, usually with another deported veteran living in his second bedroom or on his couch. He is a leading advocate against the deportation of veterans, which has become a more prevalent concern for members of our armed forces in recent years, and his home has become the cause’s unofficial headquarters. Barajas’ current houseguest, Fabian Rebolledo, received a Purple Heart for his service in Kosovo. When Rebolledo, 37, was deported to Tijuana earlier this year, he called Barajas almost immediately.
Today, Barajas will designate his apartment a safe house for deported military veterans. The announcement and press conference will bring no obvious, direct changes: the apartment can still only accommodate six to eight people (if you include floor space) and Barajas has received no outside donations or special tax status. “We got to help each other out because no one else wants to help us out,” Barajas said of his project.
Estimates for the total number of deported veterans range from several hundred to several thousand. The Walter-McCarran Act of 1952 established the basis of our current deportation procedures, allowing for the deportation of long-term legal residents—including veterans—who committed a crime. In the 1990s, a series of laws broadened the number of deportable offenses to include nonviolent drug crimes and theft.
Milton Tepeyac is a former marine who served in Iraq at the start of the invasion, and one of the veterans affected by the expanding and more strident deportation laws. He received a four-year sentence for selling marijuana and is now being held at the Fort Grant detention facility, near Tucson, while he appeals his deportation case. When he came to the United States illegally as a child, he was only three years old, and he had to wait 11 years to become a legal resident. He has applied to have his case deferred—John Morton, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced last year that they would stop deporting nonviolent immigration offenders—but his plea was denied. “The immigration world is so toxic that they don’t want to offer prosecutorial discretion to anyone unless they’re perfect, which is not a fair standard,” said Craig Shagin, Tepeyac’s attorney.
In 2001, one month after coming home from Fort Bliss, in El Paso, where he was stationed with the 82nd “All-American Airborne," Barajas was driving around Compton, California with a few friends. They were high—on crack. One of his friends, convinced that they were being followed, started firing a gun at a nearby car. No one was hurt. Barajas was wrongly identified as the person who fired the weapon but pleaded guilty, having been told that he would be charged with attempted murder if he went to trial. “I paid my debt,” Barajas, who spent two years in prison, said. “But then they took away my right to go the V.A., took away my Social Security, and I had to start a new identity.” Barajas has a grandmother in Mexico, but the rest of his family, including his seven year-old daughter, lives in California.
Deported veterans still maintain certain rights. Rebolledo has his pain and P.T.S.D. medication mailed to him each week by Veterans Affairs. Manuel de Jesus Castano, a Vietnam veteran, was deported to Juarez and died there in June. Days later, he was buried in Fort Bliss National Cemetery with an American flag on his chest. On October 12, there was a memorial service for Castano, hosted by his son, Victor, a marine.
Deportees often return home without money or contacts. But military veterans face additional challenges. “I somehow think a veteran of our recent wars would be concerned if sent to, say, Pakistan,” said Shagin. Zahid Chaudry, a National Guardsman from Yakima, Washington, could be deported to Pakistan because of a misdemeanor conviction in Australia fifteen years ago. In Mexico, there’s a history of drug cartels, like Los Zetas, recruiting people with military backgrounds.
Barajas’ living room is reminiscent of the barracks that were once the soldiers’ home. The walls are covered with military paraphernalia—his paratrooper’s uniform, an eagle patch, a “Bragging Button” from Fort Bragg. Barajas, often found in a Special Forces t-shirt, considers his military service his greatest accomplishment. He enlisted right out of high school, looking for a route out of Compton.
“There was lots of racial hostility. Drugs, gangs, that kind of stuff,” said Barajas, who describes himself as being “prone to drug addiction.” The transition from the military to Mexico has been a stark and surreal one. He turned to crystal meth for escapism and, later, to a nearby church for support. But the greatest remedy has been the company of other deported veterans, among whom he can relive his proudest hours and reclaim his past.
He has big hopes for the safe house: computers, a hot dog stand, more bedrooms, affiliations with established nonprofits, legal resources for veterans in immigration detention—he adds ideas as they occur to him. He’ll be able to offer guests spiritual counseling through his church as well as information on applying for veterans benefits and Mexican identification cards. But his biggest hope is that, soon enough, he’ll be back in the United States and there won’t be need for a safe house at all.