President Joe Biden has pledged to bring back non-citizen veterans who have been unjustly deported. Back in 2016, friends and family members of a group of deported veterans seeking re-entry into the U.S. awaited their arrival in San Ysidro. The vets were ordered back into Tijuana as they awaited a decision. / Photo by Brooke Binkowski

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Richard Avila has been living in Tijuana for 11 years — but not by choice. 

Though born in Mexico, he’s a deported U.S. veteran who has not given up hope of returning to the place he calls home — Los Angeles. For now, he keeps his apartment in the city’s Colonia Postal minimally furnished, ready to pick up and move at any time. 

As he supports himself by working in call centers, Avila is also closely monitoring developments in the United States. President Joe Biden has pledged to bring back non-citizen veterans who have been unjustly deported, and last year unveiled plans to offer relief.

An initial step was the establishment last July of the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI). The effort brings together the U.S. Veterans Administration with the Department of Homeland Security to support non-citizen service members, veterans, their families and caregivers. The collaboration led — among other things — to last year’s COVID vaccine clinic for deported U.S. veterans at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

In February, DHS and the VA launched an online portal for deported veterans to apply to return to the United States or access benefits.

And though it’s too late for those already deported, non-citizen veterans in the United States can expect their military service will be taken into consideration if they run afoul of the law. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month announced a new “policy directive to consider U.S. military service when determining civil immigration enforcement actions against non-citizens.”

Hector Barajas, a former deported veteran, is heartened by the progress of recent months.

Hector Barajas, a deported veteran, holds up proof of his citizenship in 2018, flanked by Nathan Fletcher. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“A lot of guys that I thought would never be able to return home are coming for heart surgery or the mother has cancer. There’s so many reasons that guys are coming back right now,” he told me. “It’s been super-amazing.”

Barajas returned to the United States in 2018 and is now a U.S. citizen. But he has continued to lobby on behalf of deported veterans as director of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana. He credits the IMMVI program with allowing the return earlier this month of his wife Yolanda Varona, a deportee he met in Tijuana.

Still, Barajas and other advocates say more needs to be done. Ramon Castro, a Marine veteran and member of the Brawley City Council, called the Biden administration’s efforts “a great start.” But non-citizen military members need more permanent protections, he said. 

“The thing that worries me is that it changes from administration to administration,” he said. “So the very next president could, in fact, change that policy.”

Led by U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, a group of six California members of Congress — including Juan Vargas — are working to make some lasting changes. This month, they introduced a bill, the Veteran Service Recognition Act. The legislation works to protect non-citizens military members and their families from deportation and provide paths to citizenship. It calls for the establishment of a DHS “Military Family Immigration Advisory Committee” to review cases of non-citizen veterans and service members in deportation proceedings.

When I spoke to Avila, the deported veteran, last week, he told me the new measures have offered him little possibility of returning. Yet he’s holding onto hope.

Avila was 18 months old when he moved to the United States. He enlisted in the Marines after high school, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  

During his service, he helped evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. But he also became addicted to heroin, and was given an other than honorable discharge after being caught with drugs in his pocket.

“I was thrown back into society without any rehabilitation,” Avila said. “My addiction followed me for the next 20 to 30 years of civilian life.”

To support his addiction, Avila turned to crime — and served five years after pleading guilty to armed robbery. Because he was a permanent resident — not a U.S. citizen — he was eventually deported to Mexico. But he kept returning to the United States, and served three years for illegal re-entry. Now 67, he has been living in Tijuana since 2011.

He knows his chances of going back to the U.S. are slim, even under the Biden administration’s new measures. But believes he deserves a chance. 

“I’m an American, being an American is an identity,” he said. “I did volunteer at age 17. That should matter.”

Also Noteworthy

  • Car lanes in Tijuana River channel: The state of Baja California wants to create special lanes in the Tijuana River channel for drivers heading for the U.S. border through San Ysidro. The proposal is intended to alleviate congestion on the busy Tijuana highway called Via Rapida Oriente, which runs parallel to the channel. Any such project would have to be approved by Mexico’s National Water Commission, which controls water channels. (La Jornada, El Imparcial)
  • Muslim migrant shelter: The first Muslim shelter for refugees and asylum seekers in Tijuana opened its doors last week in the city’s Zona Norte. (Union-Tribune, Channel 8)
  • In the footsteps of asylum seekers: A dozen students from the Jacobs High Tech High School at San Diego’s Liberty Station walked from Campo to Julian in a hike that paid tribute to asylum seekers. (KPBS)
  • Daylight savings time: A proposal by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to eliminate daylight savings time in Mexico is raising concerns in Baja California. The state’s business community is urging that the country’s northern border regions be exempt, saying it would have negative effects on cross-border trade and other cross-border traffic. (El Sol de Tijuana)
  • Haitians in Tijuana: The Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit with offices in San Diego and Tijuana, since December has helped cover the costs of 12 funerals of Haitian migrants in Mexico. Some have died in violent attacks, or have sought medical attention and been rejected by hospitals and clinics — or both. (Union-Tribune)
  • Gay Pride: Just in time for Tijuana’s Marcha de Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride March) on Saturday, the independent online magazine Punch takes a look at the city’s gay bar scene. Writer Emma Glassman-Hughes describes Tijuana as “a swirling site of transience and transformation.” Photographs by Carlos Moreno. (Punch, El Sol de Tijuana)
  • Border City: The Union-Tribune’s Sunday edition included a special section about the 26 years I spent as a reporter for the newspaper covering Tijuana. The text is drawn from Border City, the podcast I co-created together with editor Susan White for the Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. It was a challenging project, but I come away grateful for the strong support and humbled that I was given this rare opportunity to share stories about a city I have come to love.

Contact Sandra Dibble with story suggestions at sandradibblenews@gmail.com

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