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Deported veterans try to return to the country they fought for

On the sidewalk outside the Deported Veterans House in Tijuana, Army veteran Hector Barajas meets with new arrivals. The House has a database of 350 deported veterans, but Barajas estimates the number could be much higher. Dorian Merina/KPCC

This is the second of two stories. Part one is here.

Signs of American military life are everywhere in the cramped Tijuana apartment: A U.S. flag hangs on the wall, Army patches cover a camouflaged backpack, photos of uniformed men line a shelf.

"It was very difficult to transition, the first couple months," said Hector Barajas, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who was deported to Mexico in 2010 and calls the apartment home.

He said when he first arrived in Mexico - a country he had little connection to since he left as a child in the 1980s ­- there was no network of veterans or anyone else to help get him on his feet. Barajas started reaching out to other vets and soon turned his Tijuana home into a shelter for deported ex-servicemembers, many of whom needed help with even the most basic things as they adjusted to an unfamiliar city.

"That's part of our job here: to make it easier for the men to find work, helping them find their IDs, where to go get their driver's license," said Barajas. "It's difficult when you don't really have anyone to help you out with that."

He said he's been in touch with nearly 60 deported veterans since October. Barajas' office keeps a database of about 350 veterans who have been deported to different cities in Mexico and countries further away, such as Honduras, the Philippines and Iraq. The two-story apartment in a residential part of eastern Tijuana has three cots upstairs and a tiny kitchen Barajas refers to as a chow hall. The vets call this place "the bunker."

'I am taking responsibility'

Barajas served two stints in the Army, including in the 82nd Airborne. But when he got out, he ran into trouble with the law. In 2002, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison for discharging a firearm from a vehicle. After prison he was deported, but then re-entered the U.S. illegally and was deported again in 2010, according to records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Barajas, now 40, said he regrets his actions, but doesn't like to dwell on the past.

"I paid dearly for it and I am taking responsibility for putting myself in that position," he said. "As far as being a productive member of society, let's move forward."

In March, Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Barajas and two other veterans, noting their honorable service in the military. That pardon clears a major obstacle, but doesn't guarantee their return.

Barajas is hoping to get his legal status back and reunite with his family in Southern California, including his 11-year-old daughter. For now, he spends his time helping other deported veterans ­- many of whom, he said, struggle after getting out of the military.

"Not too many people are willing to put on a uniform and go fight, and it's the reason we have these freedoms today is because of these men and women," he said. "When they came back, they came with trauma. We have PTSD. It's military, it's connected to their service. The reasons these men are going to make these mistakes and suffer is because of the military trauma."

'I needed help, but I didn't know how to ask for it'

There are more than 11,000 non-citizens serving active duty in the military, according to the Pentagon. About a decade ago, that number was three times as high. Legal permanent residents are eligible to serve, and doing so can expedite the naturalization process. But citizenship is not automatic and many veterans leave the military without obtaining it.

Some described a confusing and time-consuming process, made harder by deployments and frequent moves. Others said that because they had grown up mostly in the U.S., they felt American and didn't think to apply, especially while focused on the demands of military service.

But without citizenship, they're vulnerable to deportation if they run afoul of the law later in life.

It's been long-standing federal law, outlined in a 1996 measure signed by President Bill Clinton, that legal permanent residents are eligible for deportation if they have a criminal record, even for a non-violent offense.

An executive order President Donald Trump signed in January lowered the bar for who can be deported to include those who have been charged with a criminal offense, even if they have not been convicted.

That's what led to Jesus Juarez's deportation, after conviction of drug possession in 1997. The former Marine was brought to the U.S. as a child from Mexico, and he enlisted as a teenager. But a training accident while he was deployed to Puerto Rico in the 1970s led to a series of painful surgeries and memory loss. Then his father suddenly died, sending him into a downward spiral.

"I was young and there were a lot of things I didn't understand and I needed help," said Juarez. "I needed help, but I didn't know how to ask for it."

He said his behavior contributed to him leaving the military with an other than honorable discharge and getting into drugs.

But in the years since, he's cleaned up and reconnected with his family in San Diego, said Juarez. He hopes to one day return to the U.S.

"If we were willing to give our lives for the country, I think we should be able to live there," he said.

Juarez, now 61, said a doctor in Tijuana has told him he needs prosthetics, but he can't afford them. There are no VA doctors in Tijuana, so he and the other veterans have trouble accessing their health benefits or applying for eligibility.

"Generally, residence overseas does not bar a veteran from applying for or receiving VA disability compensation or other benefits, nor would the fact of deportation or, in general, conviction of a crime, be a bar to these benefits," said VA spokesman Terrence Hayes.

But "there may be some practical difficulties in pursuing a claim from a foreign country," he said.

For veterans who are barred from re-entering the U.S. to visit a VA facility or be seen by VA doctors or staff, the situation amounts to a critical impasse.

Reforms could be coming

Some deported veterans could get help from legislation in California that would set up a legal aid fund for them. The measure, AB 386 , sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), passed the assembly in May and is pending in the Senate. But it would cover only veterans with an honorable discharge, leaving out those like Jesus Juarez.

Meanwhile, in Congress, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said he plans to introduce a bill this term to help service members get their citizenship - and prevent deportations for veterans who get into legal trouble.

"If there is punishment to be had for a crime that was committed, that punishment should be meted out in a U.S. jail or a U.S. prison, but that person should be in the United States," said Castro.

His bill would add to several others currently in Congress that aim to address the issue in different ways. One would require the federal government to keep track of how many veterans face deportation; another would allow deported veterans temporary re-entry into the U.S. to seek medical treatment.

Meanwhile, back in Tijuana, Hector Barajas sleeps on a cot next to a daily reminder of the harsh timeline that many deported veterans face: six military dog tags hang on the wall. They're the identification tags of some of the veterans who passed through the shelter and died while still blocked from returning to the U.S.

"Bring these men and women home, who at one point put their life on the line, who at the end of the day when they die, are going to be buried as American veterans," said Barajas. "Why not bring these men home?"

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of KPCC, WUNC and WUSF -- with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.