He served in the US military for six years. But the toughest battle Hector Barajas faced lasted more than a decade.
Barajas has become a well-known leader of an increasingly vocal group of deported veterans, many of whom have made their home across the US-Mexico border in Tijuana.
Whether the US government should deport people who’ve served the country is a debate that sits at the intersection of two major areas in US politics: immigration and the military.
So how did we get here? Let’s take a step back and look at some of the issues at play:
There are immigrants in the US military?
Yes, tens of thousands of them in fact. About 40,000 immigrants serve in the armed forces, according to a report from the National Immigration Forum. Most of them are lawful permanent residents of the United States. And more than half a million US veterans are foreign-born.
Is this a new thing?
Not at all. There’s a long history of immigrants serving in the military. During the Civil War, about 20% of the Union Army’s 1.5 million members were foreign-born, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And immigrants made up more than 18% of the US Army during World War I, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some units had so many foreign-born soldiers that they became known for their immigrant members, including the 77th Infantry Division, which was known as the “Melting Pot Division.”
So how does a veteran end up getting deported?
Each case is different. But they generally share one thing in common: They were honorably discharged from the military but later convicted of crimes after returning to civilian life.
Barajas, who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States as a child, served in the 82nd Airborne Division from 1995 until he was honorably discharged 2001.
Soon afterward, he was arrested over shooting a gun from his vehicle. Nobody was hurt, but he was charged with assault and pleaded no contest in 2002 to a charge of shooting at an occupied vehicle.
Authorities revoked his green card and deported him after he served a two-year prison sentence. He’s been living in Tijuana and trying to get back to the United States ever since.
And he’s not the only one. Barajas founded a safe house in Tijuana for other deported veterans. Dozens have passed through “The Bunker,” seeking shelter and trying to get back on their feet.
“I want to apologize once more for what got me deported. I’m not proud of the circumstances that led to it,” Barajas said at a news conference after Friday’s citizenship ceremony. “But I am proud of my service and the work that I’m doing today.”
Once they’re deported, what options do they have?
It’s a long road. Many struggle to find jobs in countries they barely know, Barajas says.
Just last month, CNN followed the case of another veteran who’s just beginning the journey. Miguel Perez Jr., who served more than seven years in prison after a felony drug conviction, was deported in March after a legal battle. But he says he’s not done fighting.
“I will continue to struggle, not only for myself, but for other veterans and others who have been separated from their families,” he said.
Barajas has said he didn’t apply for citizenship while in the Army because he assumed military service guaranteed it. Many other deported veterans, he says, thought the same thing.
It’s unclear how many veterans have been deported; officials don’t track that figure. In 2016, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union told CNN the organization had connected with 70 deported veterans scattered all over the world. On Friday, the ACLU said Barajas is the first known deported veteran to be naturalized as a US citizen.
It took years for Barajas to get back on a path to citizenship. Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him, paving the way for Barajas to return to the United States.