Three California veterans who were deported to Mexico because of the crimes they committed may be allowed to return to the U.S. after Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned them last week.
One is Hector Barajas, who used to live in La Puente. Barajas came to the U.S. at age 7 and was a legal resident when he joined the U.S. Army, serving between 1995 and 2001.
Barajas ran into trouble after his discharge; he was arrested and pleaded guilty to illegally firing a gun into a vehicle, he said. This made him deportable, despite his legal residency status.
Immigration officials ordered Barajas deported in 2004. He returned to the U.S. illegally, but was eventually caught and sent back to Mexico.
He now operates a shelter for other deported vets in Tijuana. But with Brown's pardon, Barajas hopes he can return to the U.S.
"The pardon gets rid of your crime," Barajas said by phone. "The reason I can't go back to the United States is...they're going to say you can't come to the United States because you have an aggravated felony. Well, I don't have an aggravated felony anymore."
Barajas is planning to get his residency back and to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, citing a law that makes it easier for veterans to apply.
"These criteria for naturalization are loosened for people who serve in the military during a time of war," said Jenny Pasquarella, an attorney with ACLU in Los Angeles who is serving as Barajas' lawyer.
Whether Barajas can return will be up to U.S. immigration officials. He said he had expected a denial, but he hopes the pardon will make a difference.
The two other deported veterans pardoned by Brown, Erasmo Apodaca and Marco Antonio Chavez Medina, also hope to return to the U.S., Pasquarella said.
They are not isolated cases: Barajas said he's housing five deported veterans at his Tijuana shelter, the Deported Veterans Support House, and said he has worked with a total of about 60 deported vets in Tijuana so far.
"This is very common," Barajas said. "It has been happening since 1996. Hundreds if not thousands have been deported."
Starting in 1996, tighter immigration laws made it easier to deport legal residents if they were convicted of certain crimes. This has included military veterans. Pasquarella said there's no accurate count of deported veterans because the government doesn't track their numbers.
Non-citizen legal residents routinely enlist in the military. The Department of Defense couldn't readily share available numbers. But the public radio collaboration Fronteras estimated in 2013 that as many 35,000 military members were not U.S. citizens. Legal residents who enlist have been eligible for expedited naturalization since after 9/11, when President George W. Bush offered streamlined citizenship as an incentive to join the military.
Unauthorized immigrants may not serve in the military, although there have been several legislative attempts to let them do so in exchange for legal status. In one recent attempt, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) offered a bill called the ENLIST Act, which would allow young people who arrived as children to earn legal status through military service.