Deported Veterans Long to Return From Exile. Some Will Get the Chance.

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Removed to countries they barely knew after serving time for their crimes, the veterans hope to finally return. “Everything that I am is American.”

The “Leave No One Behind” border mural depicts deported veterans and other immigrants removed from the United States.
Credit...Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Miriam Jordan

July 26, 2021Updated 5:29 p.m. ET

ROSARITO, Mexico — Alex Murillo leads a full life in the Mexican town of Rosarito, a 40-minute drive from the U.S. border near Tijuana. By day, he works at a call center, speaking in a cheerful, caring tone to retirees across the United States about their Medicare insurance. After work, he crams cleats, flags and other gear into a duffel bag and heads out to coach a youth football team whose players credit him with building their skills in the American sport.

But Mr. Murillo, 43, has no desire to stay in Rosarito, where he has lived for nearly a decade. In fact, he does not feel he belongs in Mexico at all, a country he left when he was an infant.

Home, for him, is in Phoenix, where he grew up, enlisted in the Navy, had four children — and later got into trouble. He was deported two days before Christmas in 2011, after serving time for transporting several hundred pounds of marijuana.

Mr. Murillo is one of hundreds of immigrant military veterans who have faced lifetime removal to the countries of their birth as a result of crimes, sometimes minor, that they committed after their military service.

“I have always just been waiting for the day I can go back,” said Mr. Murillo, who was wearing, as he does on many days, an Arizona Cardinals hoodie. “Everything I do here is positive, but I want to be home with my family.”

The wait, he hopes, is almost over.

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Credit...Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

The Biden administration said this month that it would begin allowing foreign-born veterans who were deported to return to the United States and help them become American citizens.

“We are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and to ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security.

The announcement was momentous for veterans who have been exiled from the United States, often for more than a decade.

Robert Vivar, a co-director of the Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center in Tijuana, estimates there are at least 1,000 military deportees living in some 40 countries. About two dozen have been allowed to return in the past few years, mainly those who had the least serious criminal offenses, such as firearms possession or driving under the influence. Pardons by governors have paved the way for a few repatriations, though they can take years.

But deciding who qualifies for readmission could prove thorny: Some of the veterans committed serious crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and, in Mr. Murillo’s case, major drug violations, and it is not clear that everyone will be allowed to return.

“How will they determine who was ‘unjustly deported’?” said Hector Barajas, 44, a decorated ex-U.S. Army paratrooper convicted of shooting at a car in 2002 who returned in 2018 after a pardon from former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.

What is certain is that the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies will be tasked with assisting a group of people who will most likely require an array of services as they strive to rebuild their lives.

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Credit...Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Separated from their families, they have often seen their lives further unravel in countries they had left long ago. Their spouses have left them; their children have become troubled.

“It’s not like we’re home now, have a job and our families back,” said Mr. Barajas, whose activism first drew attention to the plight of deported veterans.

Now a U.S. citizen, Mr. Barajas has battled depression and diabetes. It has been difficult to connect with his daughter, 16, after his prolonged absence.

“They are going to have a hard time re-acclimating,” said Rudy Melson, president of Consultants for America’s Veterans, which helps veterans living abroad. “We will need to create resources, rules and programs. We owe it to these men and women who we kicked out to make them whole again.”

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have fought in major conflicts since the Revolutionary War. By serving honorably in the military for a year, or for even a single day during wartime, they are entitled under the law to expedited naturalization. But it does not often happen.

Some never apply, believing recruiters who told them that enlisting would automatically confer citizenship. Filing paperwork while deployed overseas, especially in war zones, is challenging. Some applications mailed from bases have gone astray.

Many veterans said they did not realize they could be deported until an officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up at the end of their prison sentence. Many feel wronged that, after serving their time, they face additional punishment.

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Credit...Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

“The country you were willing to die for threw you out like a piece of trash,” said Hector Lopez, 57, a U.S. Army veteran, who was deported in 2006 and now helps run the resource center for deportees in Tijuana.

But critics of blanket readmissions say any noncitizen who commits a serious crime faces possible deportation. “That’s the way the law works,” Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said at a 2019 hearing on deported veterans. “There’s nobody else that would get an exception to that.”

Changes in immigration law in 1996 made all green card holders more vulnerable to deportation by reclassifying some lower-level offenses as “aggravated felonies” for which removal became mandatory. Drug crimes, theft and tax fraud became grounds for permanent expulsion, without regard to military service.

Gonzalo Fuentes, who arrived in the United States at age 3 and served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, was deported in 1999 for hauling a 58-pound load of marijuana to Louisiana from Texas.

“I only did the transport of marijuana once,” Mr. Fuentes, 54, said. “It’s all it took to go down in flames.”

Desperate to return, he crossed the border illegally. He lived and worked in Corpus Christi, Texas, until he was deported again in 2009, after he was stopped for a broken taillight. That action added another crime to his record.

He currently lives in Cancun, where he gets by selling vacation packages to Americans and Canadians. But he longs to be with his parents, who are not healthy enough to travel. “All I want is a second chance,” he said. The Biden administration's new pledge, he said, “is my last hope.’’

Mr. Murillo said he had never thought of himself as anything but American.

“I grew up as a regular American kid,” he said. “I played baseball, basketball and football.”

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Credit...Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

He joined the Navy straight out of high school in 1996. At the time, his parents were applying for citizenship, and he could have been added to their application.

“Ma, don’t spend money on that,” his mother, Leticia Bernal, said he told her. “They’re giving me my citizenship in the Navy.”

Mr. Murillo was deployed to the Middle East on the U.S.S. George Washington aircraft carrier as an aviation mechanic. At a base in Florida in 1998, he was caught using marijuana and ultimately discharged for bad conduct.

He returned to Phoenix to a broken marriage, and from there, he said, his life spiraled downward. Still on drugs, he lost his job installing satellite dishes and fell behind on his child support payments after getting divorced.

In April 2009, he agreed to drive a mammoth load of marijuana to St. Louis for $10,000, but he was caught by a highway patrol officer.

He received a 37-month prison sentence, and after his release in December 2011 was placed on a bus to Mexico.

In Rosarito, he became a devoted campaigner for deported veterans, raising awareness about them by calling members of Congress and by creating videos for the public. His name was added to that of deportees painted on the border wall in Tijuana.

Back in Arizona, his children ended up in the custody of child protective services. A few years later, his two sons began abusing fentanyl and living in the streets, until Mr. Murillo had them brought to Rosarito, where he helped straighten them up.

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Credit...Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

“They are stronger when they are close to Alex,” his mother, Ms. Bernal, said.

After football practice one recent evening, fellow coaches said that they would miss Mr. Murillo if he returned to the United States but said he deserved it.

“We’ll be more than happy when coach goes back — he’s paid his dues,” one of the coaches, Gil Rodriguez, said.

Mr. Murillo says he simply wishes to be back where he feels that he belongs.

“I grew up with ‘Scooby-Doo,’ ‘Andy Griffith,’ ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Price Is Right,’ Oprah, baseball — all the American things,” he said. “Everything that I am is American.”

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