U.S. Customs and Border Protection is evaluating whether to remove a painting of an upside-down American flag — a military distress signal — that deported veterans painted on a border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana five years ago.
The mural aimed to raise awareness of the struggles of deported U.S. military veterans, a group that has gained increasing attention amid the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten immigration rules and step up deportations. Advocates say there are hundreds or thousands of U.S. military veterans who have been deported, but the specific number is unclear. Many are forced out of the country because they didn’t officially apply for citizenship while in the service and were at some point convicted of a crime.
Officials with CBP said the agency’s San Diego office has received public complaints about graffiti on federal property, specifically along the south side of the border wall with Tijuana, an area known as “Friendship Circle.”
Ralph DeSio, a CBP spokesman, said that as the agency began to investigate the complaints, “it became obvious that skilled artists applied some of the ‘graffiti’ with the intent of creating murals to send a specific political message and/or to beautify the border wall.”
DeSio said the sector’s chief agent decided to contact the artists to engage them in conversation before making any final decision, noting it is important to understand that the murals were applied to U.S. government property without permission: “The Chief Patrol Agent has not made any final decision and is currently reaching out to those involved with creating the murals in an attempt to offer them a voice.”
Navy veteran Amos Gregory — a muralist who leads Veterans Alley, a project that includes murals about the realities of war on Shannon Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood — worked with deported veterans to create the border painting five years ago. He said it wasn’t until just recently that officials seemed to care about it, noting that veteran artists first started getting calls from border officers after President Trump recently visited the area to inspect border wall prototypes.
“Since when was Border Patrol in the position of curating art?” Gregory said, noting how the mural has been there for years without causing a stir, until just after Trump’s visit. “It’s just ironic. It has to be connected.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment, and DeSio declined to comment on who complained about the graffiti, saying only that it was a member of the public.
Gregory said he hopes the mural can stay on the wall, as it honors deported veterans such as Alex Murillo, who worked on the mural and wrote his name on it. Murillo and others were told by recruiters that they would automatically obtain citizenship through military service. While they can obtain citizenship, they must apply and file paperwork, in some cases while they are deployed to war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of those who were deported are green-card holders who were honorably discharged from service but were convicted of a crime after returning to civilian life.
Murillo was deported in 2012 after he completed a three-year sentence for transporting marijuana in Arizona. Murillo often visits the steel mesh fence where the mural is painted to hold meetings through the slats with advocates trying to get him and other deported veterans readmitted to the country. He wears a “U.S. Navy” T-shirt with the word “Deported” on top.
Once deported, veterans say they can’t access their benefits for counseling or education.
“The mural was never meant to be disrespectful. We are simply saying — and any military member would get it — that deported veterans are in distress,” said Murillo, who has four children and two grandchildren in San Diego and Phoenix. “We love the U.S. We just want attention to our issue and to come back home.”
After 14 years of living in Mexico, Army veteran Hector Barajas-Varela, 40, became the first known deported veteran to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
He was in exile for so long that he started “The Bunker,” a support house for deported U.S. military veterans — currently more than 30 — in Tijuana. There are now others throughout Mexico and one in the Dominican Republic.
Last April, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) pardoned Barajas-Varela for the crime that led to his deportation, saying he showed he had worked hard to help his fellow veterans.
Barajas-Varela is even featured in a photo standing in front of the upside-down flag, which was used as the cover for “Discharged, Then Discarded,” a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sponsored a forum on the issue on Capitol Hill last week, pressing to help deported veterans come home.
Takano wants recruiters to make it clear that noncitizens who serve in the U.S. military are granted the right to citizenship, but that they must apply for it. He also wants immigration officials to specifically ask those being deported if they are U.S. military veterans, Takano said.
“It’s a travesty and it’s heart-wrenching,” he said in an interview after the forum last week, noting he also would be looking into concerns about the mural at the border. “They served their country but now spend their lives in exile from the country they defended. It’s just wrong.”