After fighting in Afghanistan, former United States Army soldier Mauricio Hernandez Mata returned home with post-traumatic stress, which he says eventually led to trouble with the law. He was then deported to Mexico, a country he had not lived in since he was a boy.
But on Wednesday, he and another deported veteran were sworn in as US citizens at a special naturalisation ceremony in San Diego, California.
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The two veterans were among 65 people who have been allowed back into the US over the past year as part of a growing effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to make amends with immigrants who served in the US military only to wind up deported.
The Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative seeks to address the hundreds of US military veterans affected by what immigration advocates and others consider an unfair punishment. Many are still struggling to find legal help to return to the US, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“After my deportation, yeah, I never thought this day would come,” said the 41-year-old Hernandez, dressed in a black suit and tie after being presented with his US citizenship certificate. “It’s definitely been a long road. I’m glad that we were given a second chance, as anybody that is either American-born or fought for America should have.”
Leonel Contreras, 63, who joined the US Army at the age of 17 and served for a year in 1976, also was sworn in at the ceremony.
“I feel very blessed,” said Contreras, who was allowed back into the US about four months ago. “I feel very happy to be back on American soil.”
Both men spent the past decade living in the border city of Tijuana.
Contreras was whisked away by US immigration authorities – who walked into the barbershop where he worked in National City, south of San Diego – placed into immigration detention and deported. His life changed forever.
He continued to work in Tijuana as a barber and found work at call centres because of his English, helping to answer questions from customers of US companies. But it was not easy.
During that time, his two sons grew up, and he now is a grandfather. With US citizenship now in hand, Contreras said he is not looking back.
“I just want to go to all the places I’ve dreamed of seeing, like the Grand Canyon and possibly Mount Rushmore,” he said.
Hernandez said his deportation came after unspecified “irreverent actions and mistakes I made due to my PTSD”. He declined to give more details. But he said that, after he was allowed back into the country a year ago, he was determined to get his US citizenship so he could go to the grocery store and not feel “terrified” of being picked up and sent back to Mexico.
His seven-year-old daughter hugged him after he was sworn in amid cheers from a crowd that included more than a dozen veterans from various branches. Then he turned and kissed his wife.
“I’ve always been an American, the difference is now I’m an American citizen and I have all the rights that any American-born citizen has,” Hernandez said.
“And it was important to me to have those rights just to prove the point — the point being that anybody that’s willing to lay down their life, their sanity, and give everything that they hold dear for American freedom should be eventually, at one point in their lives, considered a US citizen.”