Hector Barajas spent nearly six years in the US Army. He thought the service would automatically lead to citizenship. It didn't. After being honourably discharged he got into trouble. He pleaded guilty to a serious crime, shooting a firearm into a car.
Once released from prison he was deported to Mexico. He was born there but felt like he was being sent to a foreign land. In Mexico, he started a group "Banished Veterans" to try and help other former service members who have been deported from the country to which they pledged allegiance.
He runs "the bunker" a shelter for deported vets in Tijuana, Mexico, near the US border where Al Jazeera spoke to him.
Al Jazeera: What's important for people to know about deported veterans?
Hector Barajas: I think it is important for people to first know that you don't need to be a citizen to serve in the military or be drafted. And that people who served honourably and who fought for our country are being deported. At the moment we have veterans deported to 24 different countries. That includes people who fought in the Vietnam War to people serving in current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AJ: Did you even think that you could be deported? Was it a wake up call to get sent back to Mexico?
HB: Every time I thought of immigration I always thought about my uncle coming from Mexico and worrying about him getting caught by immigration. I never in my life thought that veterans were being deported - even though they were being deported when I was serving. When I went through the process it was a wake up call to learn about immigration. I had had a small idea of how it affects millions of people. Now I think it is a big issue because there are a lot of people in the United States being separated from their families.
AJ: Has the US turned its back on you?
HB: I feel my country has turned its back on us because we were willing to do what most Americans weren't and that's put on the uniform and put our lives on the line at any moment on an airborne operation I could have lost my life. There was an accident at one point where I lost consciousness. We have men that have fought in conflicts who come back severely damaged with post traumatic syndrome. Currently the only way I am going to go home, is if I die. Today I can be buried as an American. They are going to give my family a folded flag and tell my family thank you from a grateful nation. But the only way I am going home is in a box and then they are going to thank me for my service. Now I think if we are going to honour our veterans honour them by letting them be with their families , letting them get their medical care. That's what we are trying to gain.
AJ: I see all this American iconography at the shelter - flags and slogans. What keeps the hope burning and keeps you from being cynical about the US?
HB: I could be angry about my situation – there are times that I am but I have hope and an idea of what it means to be an American to make things right. I grew up as an American I served for almost six years. It is not something I can just put to the side.
AJ: Let's say tomorrow you are allowed to return legally to the US. Has this experience taught you anything?
HB: I value my family more, my country. I value more what people go through in immigration, my parents having immigrated. I became an activist in a sense. My life totally changed. I think I am a better person for it. Because I was able to get something good out of it. It depends on the person. It was the worst thing that has happened to me but also the best because I have been able to overcome certain things.
AJ: Is it fair?
HB: It's not fair. The thing that hurts me the most, is being separated from my daughter. (chokes up) I love her very much. And for anything that is deported, family is the most important thing. I am not fighting to make ten dollars an hour I am not fighting to live with a white picket fence around my house. I am fighting to be with my daughter and raise her because that's what we value in America. My daughter is an American. I am American. I was a soldier. That's the idea – to fight for our country and our families. How can you turn your back on our families.
AJ: If you are successful and get back to the US what are you going to do?
HB: I would like to advocate for veterans' rights and immigrant rights just to make things better for myself and others. It could be homeless vets or - we have to be more involved in our communities whether we are in Tijuana or San Diego in the US. Wherever you are you have to help out your community. And work toward being a better citizen.
AJ: Do you think people in the US realise some people who fight for their country can be deported?
HB: Most people don't know that veterans are being deported. Most people don't know that non-citizens have ben serving our country since the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln instituted the draft. And we drafted immigrants in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. So I think it is very important that people know that we have a lot of people not from this country that are serving our armed forces and dying on the battlefield.
AJ: What do you think about US politics – Obama just announced a reform. Do you feel the tide is changing?
HB: I feel politicians are at fault for these laws. They can do more for our situation. They reinstated the judicial discretion In November 2014, that takes military service into consideration. That hasn't happened since 1986. I think what [Obama] did was good. But it only helps people still in the US. All the millions of people already deported - it doesn't help them at all. You are talking about US-born children separated from their parents.
Source: Al Jazeera