TIJUANA, Mexico — After more than two years of forced exile from her family, Juana Flores dragged her suitcase into this sprawling border city on her way home to California. The 58-year-old citizen of Mexico has 10 children and 18 grandchildren in the United States, including a son serving overseas in the U.S. Air Force.
“What if they turn me away?” she said in Spanish to her daughter, Cristina, 35, who hugged her tightly as they dodged traffic and street vendors on the way to the border crossing.
Flores’s arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border this month was a rare reversal of the deportation of a military family member that veterans advocates hope will expand in coming months. On the campaign trail, President Biden had blasted his predecessor for deporting veterans, calling it an “outrage” and promising to create a process in his first 100 days for them to return to the United States. He has since expanded that review to include their family members.
The Department of Homeland Security “recognizes the profound sacrifice that our military families make on behalf of our nation,” spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said in a statement.
“The Department is committed to bringing back military family members who were unjustly deported,” she said. “Additional steps will be taken to make sure that military families’ path to naturalization is easy.”
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s staff has been meeting with advocates, deported veterans and members of Congress in recent weeks to gather information about cases, and in May, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a memo saying that service members and their immediate relatives generally should not be deported.
But officials have not said how many cases are under review or how many veterans and their relatives have been returned to the United States. Espinosa said this month that DHS is still “developing a rigorous, systematic approach to reviewing these cases.”
Veterans advocates said they have heard of few deported military family members or veterans returning to the United States.
“President Biden made all these promises,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and retired Army officer who testified about the issue before a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. “I’ve hardly seen anybody brought back.”
Nobody knows how many veterans and military family members have been deported from the United States. The practice has occurred for decades, including when Biden was vice president. Veterans advocates estimate that hundreds of veterans have been deported over the years and perhaps thousands of their relatives.
ICE is supposed to screen service members for eligibility for U.S. citizenship or other immigration benefits before deporting them, but the Government Accountability Office found in 2019 that the agency did not track how many veterans it had removed from the country, often after they were arrested for crimes.
Hector Barajas-Varela, an Army veteran who was deported after a weapons offense but has since been pardoned and become a U.S. citizen, said many veterans fall into trouble because of post-traumatic stress linked to their service.
He said that he was encouraged by Biden’s plans but that it is urgent to return deported veterans, who are far from their families and medical and social services in the United States.
“It’s been over 100 days. I haven’t seen any of the deported veterans go back through anything Biden has done,” said Barajas-Varela, who runs the Deported Veterans Support House, nicknamed the “Bunker,” in Tijuana, and connects deported veterans with legal aid and other resources. “They all want to go back.”
The ‘Good Land’
Juana and Andres Flores married young in Aguascalientes, a state in central Mexico, and their family grew quickly. The couple had worked in the fields as children, too poor to finish grammar school. They wanted a better life for their own children.
Andres’s solution was to migrate to Southern California to join a friend working construction jobs, and his wife and children soon followed.
They settled in a modest house in Goleta, a city of 30,000 nicknamed the “Good Land” for its fertile fields and lemon groves. If neighboring Santa Barbara attracted celebrities and investment bankers, Goleta drew the workers, people who cleaned houses, patched roofs and built koi ponds in the yards of the wealthy.
The Flores family vaulted into the middle class, in a loud, loving and sometimes chaotic home filled with the sounds of music, boisterous children and the aroma of tasty mole sauce simmering in giant pots on Juana Flores’s stove.
All 10 children graduated from high school. Four work in hospitals, including two studying to become registered nurses. Cristina is a special-education teacher. Caesar, who played football at Dos Pueblos High, joined the Air Force in 2016.
Juana is the “glue,” her family often says. She cared for grandchildren so her sons and daughters could work and study. She coached her daughters through childbirth, her children through breakups, and helmed dozens of birthday celebrations, somehow remembering each child’s favorite flavor of cake. She went to Mass at St. Raphael Catholic Church. In her spare time, she cleaned houses.
She used to rise before dawn with Caesar, her youngest, to make him protein shakes for football practice.
“She’s everything,” Caesar Flores, 24, a staff sergeant, said in an interview from Turkey, where he works 24-hour shifts on an ambulance service providing care to injured airmen. “She sets the foundation for our family.”
Andres Flores became a U.S. citizen during the Obama administration — he obtained his papers through work — and tried to sponsor his wife for legal residency. The authorities, however, said Juana Flores was ineligible because she had left the United States in the 1990s to visit her sick mother. Under federal law, she had to wait outside the country for 10 years to apply.
Officials referred Juana Flores to deportation proceedings, and days before Caesar Flores’s July 2018 wedding, immigration officials said she had to go.
After tearful pleading, they allowed her to stay for the ceremony. But by April 2019, she was gone.
Andres drove her 30 hours to their old house in Aguascalientes. Her sisters and brothers were thrilled to see her after decades apart. But they had their own families, and her husband had to return to Goleta to work.
For the first time in her life, she was alone.
Before Andres Flores left, he planted apple, peach and lemon trees for her to tend. He gave her chickens to raise. And he bought her a small flock of sheep, so she would get out of bed twice a day to feed them.
“Like therapy,” he said.
Her children in the United States called daily. But Flores missed the births of three grandchildren. She missed graduations. She missed Mother’s Day.
“When it first happened, I couldn’t believe it,” Cristina Flores said. “How could you deport an older lady who’s not a threat to anybody and hasn’t done anything? I was in shock. And mad. And just in disbelief that things like that could happen to people.”
Once word got out that ICE had ordered Flores to leave, the people of Goleta were furious.
The Goleta City Council passed a resolution supporting her.
“We were mad. Our mayor was mad. Our then-mayor pro-tem was mad. Our council members. Everyone was just like, ‘Really?’ ” Goleta City Council member James Kyriaco said in an interview. “It felt like an assault on our community.”
Her advocates even wrote to President Donald Trump, but nothing changed.
Soon it became clear that Caesar Flores, who was halfway around the world, would be key to bringing Juana Flores back.
In an interview, he said he had felt a “higher calling” to join the military. The sacrifice has meant missing the first year of his daughter’s life because he is stationed in Turkey while his wife remains in California. And he has worried about his mother in Mexico. From his post overseas, he wrote a letter last year urging officials to let her return to the United States.
“I have never felt so hopeless in my life,” he wrote.
U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), a Marine veteran, filed a bill inspired by Flores that would let military parents apply for legal residency, though it has received little support so far.
“He’s willing to give his life for our country,” he said of Caesar Flores. “And yet consideration wasn’t given to his mom?”
On May 28, ICE granted her “humanitarian parole,” which allows her to enter the United States but not to stay permanently. She had to report to the agency within 72 hours of arriving and submit to the agency’s “monitoring and tracking.”
The permission is good for one year, and she will have to apply to renew it.
Flores arrived in Tijuana on June 4, as her husband, Cristina and lawyer scrambled to escort her to the U.S.-Mexico border down a carnivallike street packed with vendors hawking soaps, crispy churros, and Baby Yoda figurines.
Cristina, who had not seen her mother since last summer, climbed into her mother’s lap in the back seat as her father drove them to the border checkpoint.
“Did you miss your bed? Your sheets? Your babies? Your crying babies?” Cristina whispered in English and Spanish.
“Yes,” Juana laughed, stroking her back but looking exhausted. She had not slept the night before.
After Flores was fingerprinted and photographed, Customs and Border Protection quickly admitted her into the United States.
She began to cry.
“I feel bad. There are a lot of people who are waiting,” she said. “It’s so sad for the others. It’s been a long time.”
And it had saddened her to abruptly leave her siblings in Mexico; they have no idea when she might return.
Cristina drove the five hours home, never protesting when her mother admonished her to slow down. At home, Juana Flores gasped that her adult children — many of whom live in the family home — had painted her kitchen cabinets too light and the bathroom walls too dark. They had rearranged the living-room furniture, and the vases were dusty.
“I don’t like it,” she murmured. “They work so much. They don’t have time to clean.”
A parade of children and grandchildren soon burst through the front door. Bouquets of flowers piled high on the coffee table.
Her grandchildren Zoe and Leon, both under 2 years old, stared at her with enormous eyes. They did not know “grandma,” as they call her in English.
She hugged them all, clucking that some seemed thinner, some fatter. She took a long look at one son, who had been hospitalized while she was away.
“Are you okay?” she asked him, searching his face, and he nodded.
On Sunday, her supporters gathered in Oak Park in Santa Barbara to celebrate her return.
Carbajal showed up, along with members of the Goleta City Council, the school board, relatives and family friends.
Caesar Flores appeared via videoconference from Turkey.
Andres Flores, 61, serenaded his wife of 42 years to a mariachi band playing “Volver,” which means “to return.”
“If it happens again, if their hearts are not moved to fix my wife’s situation, then I would decide to return with her,” he said. “But I don’t think it will happen.”
Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.