The exiled veteran longs to return from exile. Some will get a chance.
Rosarito, Mexico – Alex Murillo lives a full life in the Mexican city of Rosarito, a 40-minute drive from the US border near Tijuana. By day, he works in 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 duffel bags and sets out to coach a youth football team, whose players credit him for building their skills in the American game.
But Mr. Murillo, 43, has no desire to live in Rosarito, where he has lived for nearly a decade. In fact, he doesn’t think he’s in Mexico, a country he left as a child.
Home, for him, is in Phoenix, Ariz., 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 life expulsion in their countries of birth as a result of crimes, sometimes minor, committed after their military service.
“I’m always looking forward to the day I can go back,” said Mr. Murillo, who wore an Arizona Cardinals hoodie for several days. “Everything I do here is positive, but I want to be at home with my family.”
They hope the wait is almost over.
The Biden administration said this month that it would begin allowing foreign-origin veterans who were allowed to return to the United States to help them become US citizens.
“We are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and to ensure that they receive the benefits they may be entitled to,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Meyercas said.
The announcement was significant for veterans who had been deported from the United States, often for more than a decade.
Robert Weaver, co-director of the Unified US Deported Veterans Resource Center in Tijuana, estimates that there are at least 1,000 military exiles living in about 40 countries. About two dozen have been allowed to return over the years, mainly those who had at least one serious criminal offense, such as possessing a firearm or driving under the influence. Pardons by governors have paved the way for some repatriation, although this could take years.
But deciding who qualifies for readmission can prove thorny: Some veterans have committed serious crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and, in Mr. Murillo’s case, major drug violations, and it’s clear Not that everyone will be allowed to go back.
“How would they determine who was ‘unjustly exiled’?” Hector Barajas, 44, said the former US Army paratrooper who was convicted of shooting a car in 2002, returned in 2018 after an apology from former California Governor Jerry Brown.
What is certain is that the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies will be tasked with assisting a group of people who will need a range of services in an effort to rebuild their lives.
Separated from their families, they have often found their lives more settled in the countries they had left long ago. their wives have abandoned them; His children are upset.
“It’s not like we’re at home now, with a job and our families back,” said Mr. Barajas, whose activism first drew attention to the plight of ex-servicemen in exile.
Now a US citizen, Mr Barajas is battling depression and diabetes. His long absence has made it difficult to connect with his 16-year-old daughter.
“They are going to have a hard time getting used to it again,” said Rudy Melson, president of Consultants for Veterans of America, which helps veterans who live overseas. “We will need to create resources, regulations, and programs. We are indebted to these men and women we took out to make us healthy again.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have fought in major conflicts since the Revolutionary War. By serving honorably in the army for a year or even a day during a war, they are entitled to early naturalization under the law. But that doesn’t happen often.
Some people never apply, believing recruiters who told them that being recruited would automatically grant citizenship. It is challenging to do paperwork while stationed overseas, especially in war zones. Some applications sent from the bases have gone astray.
Several veterans said they didn’t realize they could be deported until an officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to the end of their prison sentence. Many get it wrong that they have to face additional penalties after passing the time.
“The country you were willing to die for threw you like a piece of trash,” said Hector Lopez, 57, a US military veteran who was deported in 2006 and is now a resource for exiles in Tijuana. Helps in running the center.
But critics of the blanket reading say that any non-citizen who commits a serious crime faces potential deportation. “That’s how the law works,” Republican Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona said at a 2019 hearing on deported veterans. “There is no one else who will get an exception to this.”
Changes in immigration law in 1996 made all green-card holders more vulnerable to deportation, reclassifying some lower-level offenses as “aggravated felonies” for which expulsion became mandatory. Drug crimes, theft and tax fraud became grounds for permanent expulsion regardless of military service.
Gonzalo Fuentes, who arrived in the United States at age 3 and served in the military during Operation Desert Storm, was deported from Texas to Louisiana in 1999 for hauling a 58-pound load of marijuana.
“I only transported marijuana once,” said 54-year-old Mr. Fuentes. “It’s all about going down in flames.”
Desperate to return, he crossed the border illegally. He lived and worked in Corpus Christi until he was deported again in 2009, when he was stopped for a broken taillight. That action added another offense to his record.
He currently lives in Cancun, where he makes ends meet by selling vacation packages to Americans and Canadians. But he wants to live with his parents, who are not healthy enough to travel. “I just want 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 other than an American.
“I grew up as a regular American kid,” he said. “I played baseball, basketball, and football.”
He joined the Navy in 1996 straight out of high school. At the time, their parents were applying for citizenship, and they could be added to their application.
“Mom, don’t spend money on that,” said his mother, Leticia Bernal, as she told him. “They are giving me my citizenship in the Navy.”
Mr Murillo was posted to the Middle East on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier as an aviation mechanic. In 1998 at a base in Florida, he was caught using marijuana and eventually discharged for bad conduct.
He returned to Phoenix for a broken marriage, and from there, he said, his life went downhill. While still on drugs, he lost his job setting up satellite dishes and fell behind on his child support payments after getting divorced.
In April 2009, he agreed to drive a giant 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 dedicated campaigner for exiled veterans, raising awareness of them by calling on members of Congress and making videos for the public. His name was added to the exiles painted on the border wall in Tijuana.
Back in Arizona, their children ended up in the custody of the Child Protective Services. A few years later, his two sons began abusing fentanyl and living in the streets, until Mr. Murillo brought them to Rosarito, where he helped them straighten up.
“They are stronger when they are close to Alex,” said his mother, Ms. Bernal.
One recent evening after football practice, fellow coaches said they would miss Mr Murillo if he returned to the United States, but said he deserved it.
“We will be very happy when the coach goes back – he has paid his dues,” said coach Gil Rodriguez.
Mr Murillo said he just wants to go back to where he thinks he belongs.
“I grew up with ‘Scooby Doo,’ ‘Andy Griffith,’ ‘I Love Lucy,’ and ‘The Price Is Right,’ Oprah, baseball — all things American,” he said. “Whatever I am I am American.”
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