* * *
Tepeyac and his family earned green cards in an amnesty signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, when Tepeyac was 13. His parents had brought him to Arizona illegally from Mexico when he was 3.
He played baseball and soccer, played trumpet and trombone in the school band, and enlisted in the Marines two weeks after his 1995 high school graduation.
His eight years in the Marines took him to the Pacific and the Persian Gulf, to Kenya after the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, and to Kuwait twice in the late 1990s. With “USMC” tattooed on his right calf, he earned medals and commendations — Good Conduct Medal, Armed Forced Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal — and was honorably discharged in 2003.
“Milton was a good Marine,” said Jon Batts, who was Tepeyac’s supervisor for part of his time in the Marines and is now an active-duty Army staff sergeant based at Fort Hood, Tex. “He could have sacrificed his life for the United States, and he’s going to get deported? There’s an injustice going on.”
After his discharge, Tepeyac started a seafood distribution business in Phoenix. When it failed, he said, he became depressed, started using drugs and fell in with the “wrong crowd.” He was busted twice, for possession of cocaine and then drug paraphernalia, and placed on probation. Then in October 2009, he said, a friend offered him $1,000 to interpret for him and count cash in a deal involving 91 pounds of marijuana.
“Like an idiot, I went with him,” he said.
Tepeyac’s felony conviction put him squarely in the crosshairs of President Obama’s administration, which has deported people in unprecedented numbers. Obama has already deported nearly 1.9 million people, surpassing Bush’s total of 1.6 million deportees in eight years, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When Tepeyac finished his prison sentence in April, immigration officials drove him to the Mexican border at Nogales. With nothing but the baby-blue prison-issued clothes he was wearing, he was turned over to Mexican officials.
His sister Liz met him there, and bought him dinner, clothes and toiletries. She gave him $500 and the phone number of a cousin who lived in Hermosillo who had agreed to take him in.
When he finally found a place of his own he could afford, it was so filthy that he spent two days bleaching the floors, walls and ceiling.
“I know I messed up bad,” he said. “But I did my time, and I gave four years of my life in prison. Why should I be punished again?”
* * *
Many deportations of veterans can be traced to changes to immigration laws passed in 1994 and 1996.
First, Congress, in an effort to tighten immigration controls, greatly expanded the list of more than 30 categories of offenses for which a person can be deported, adding crimes such as forgery and any theft that carries a sentence of one year or more.
The government calls those offenses “aggravated felonies,” but immigration lawyers say that many of them do not fit the common definitions of “aggravated” or “felony.” Shoplifting is generally a nonviolent misdemeanor, but if a judge imposes a sentence of one year or more — even if that sentence is suspended — a noncitizen shoplifter can be deported.