Cameras surrounded a smiling Hector Barajas-Varela as he stood outside a small building known as “The Bunker,” a support house for deported U.S. military veterans in Tijuana, Mexico, not far from the California border.
Tucked in his left arm was a blue folder with a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, delivering the good news he had waited more than a decade to hear. As cameras clicked, Barajas-Varela held a cellphone in his right hand, telling his mother in Southern California that he’s coming home. Then he turned to a friend and gave him a high five and a hug.
“I got it,” he said, laughing. “I got it, bro. Two weeks.”
Barajas-Varela, an Army veteran, learned Thursday that he has been granted U.S. citizenship, 14 years after he was deported to Mexico because he committed a crime. In two weeks, on April 13, he will attend a naturalization ceremony in San Diego, the last step in the process of becoming an American.
“On paper, it’s nice to be validated,” he told The Washington Post on Saturday. “It’s the government validating what most of us already feel.”
“This is our country,” he said of the United States. “Nothing is going to change about what we feel and who we are and what we’re willing to risk our lives for.”
Barajas-Varela was born in Mexico, but he grew up in the Los Angeles area. He became a permanent resident, or a green-card holder, in 1992. Three years later, he joined the Army and was honorably discharged in 2001. But not long after, Barajas-Varela lost his legal residency because he was convicted of shooting at an occupied vehicle in the Los Angeles area. Nobody was hurt, and Barajas-Varela spent 13 months in prison and another month on parole.
He was deported to Mexico in 2004.
He has lived in Tijuana since, in a small shelter he had turned into a haven for people like himself: veterans who lost the right to live in the United States because of criminal convictions. The Deported Veterans Support House has served about 20 people since 2013. The Bunker provides services and legal resources to deportees adjusting to a life outside the United States. The support house also has identified and made contact with more than 300 deported men and women from more than three dozen countries, Barajas-Varela said.
Barajas-Varela could have applied for citizenship before he was discharged from the Army, but he had mistakenly believed that serving in the military automatically guaranteed it.
He finally applied while he was living in Mexico, and in 2016, passed the English and civics portions of the naturalization process. Applicants are required to pass oral and written English tests and another on U.S. government and history.
Last April, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) pardoned Barajas-Varela for the crime that led to his deportation, removing a potential barrier from his path to citizenship.
“He has shown that since his release from custody, he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character, and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen,” according to the pardon, which also cites medals that Barajas-Varela received while in the Army.
In December 2017, Barajas-Varela filed a federal lawsuit to compel the USCIS to make a decision on his citizenship application, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties. The lawsuit was dismissed after the agency agreed to make a decision by Thursday.
Despite gaining his citizenship, Barajas-Varela said, he plans to stay in Mexico and live in The Bunker for another year to continue his work supporting deported veterans.
“To make sure that if I leave, it doesn’t close down. … I got a commitment to these guys,” he said.
Two deported veterans are now living in The Bunker, Barajas-Varela said. The support house opened a second location last year in Juarez, Mexico, near the Texas border, and another one is in the works in the Dominican Republic.
For years, deported veterans have received little to no attention in Washington because politicians are unlikely to support convicted criminals. The Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policy has steered the debate toward cutting legal immigration, creating a border wall and imposing travel restrictions on people from predominantly Muslim countries.
Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer and an Anchorage-based immigration lawyer, said the majority of deported veterans, like Barajas-Varela, were green-card holders who were honorably discharged from service but were convicted of a crime after returning to civilian life.
Barajas-Varela’s case is unusual, however: Only a handful of deported veterans have managed to make it back to the United States legally, Stock said.
“It’s extremely rare because it takes an enormous amount of legal resources to convince the government to approve a naturalization case for somebody who’s been deported,” said Stock, whom Barajas-Varela consulted about his case years earlier.
Most deported veterans are charged with an aggravated felony, a blanket term that runs the gamut, from violent crimes such as murder and rape to nonviolent ones such as theft and tax evasion, Stock said. People with that type of conviction are ineligible for American citizenship — unless the governor of the state where they were convicted decides to grant a pardon.
Barajas-Varela is one of at least three deported veterans who received gubernatorial pardons from Brown last year. Another is Marco Chavez, a Marine Corps veteran who regained his lawful residency and was allowed to come back to California in December. He had been deported to Mexico 15 years earlier over an animal cruelty conviction. The other is Erasmo Apodaca Mendizabal, another Marine Corps veteran who was convicted in 1996 of burglary.
In April 2016, Daniel Torres became a U.S. citizen after living in The Bunker in Tijuana for five years. Torres was brought to the United States illegally as a child and enlisted in the Marine Corps using a fake birth certificate. He joined the Marines in 2007 and served in Iraq.
Barajas-Varela said he plans to eventually move back to the Los Angeles area to be with his family, to have a house and to find a job there. He has an 11-year-old daughter who was born after he was deported.
“I have a responsibility to my daughter, to make sure she gets to college,” he said.
Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.