Hector Barajas-Varela, a deported veteran of the US Army, celebrates with Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, after Barajas-Varela received a notice granting his US citizenship Tijuana on Thursday. (Photo: Joel Angel Juarez / AP)
The cameras surrounded a smiling Hector Barajas-Varela when he stood in front of a small building called "The Bunker", a base for deported US military veterans in Tijuana , Mexico Not far from the California border.
In his left arm was a blue folder with a letter from the US Immigration Department, which provided the good news he had been waiting for more than ten years. When the cameras clicked, Barajas-Varela held a cell phone in his right hand and told his mother in Southern California that he was coming home. Then he turned to a friend, gave him a high five and hugged him.
"I've got it," he said laughing. "I have it, brother, two weeks."
Barajas-Varela, an army veteran, learned Thursday that he was granted American citizenship 14 years after he was deported to Mexico for committing a crime , In two weeks, April 13, he will attend a San Diego naturalization ceremony, the final step in the process of becoming an American.
"It's nice to be validated on paper," he told the Washington Post on Saturday. "It's the government that confirms what most of us already feel."
"This is our country," he said of the United States. "Nothing will change what we feel and who we are and what we risk our lives for."
Barajas-Varela was born in Mexico, but grew up in Los Angeles. In 1992 he became a permanent resident or holder of a green card. Three years later, he joined the army and was released in 2001 honorably. But not long after, Barajas-Varela lost his legal residence permit for committing a crime. He was convicted for firing an occupied vehicle in Los Angeles. No one was injured and Barajas-Varela spent 13 months in prison and another month on probation.
In 2004 he was deported to Mexico.
He's been living in Tijuana since turning into a haven for a retreat for people like himself: veterans who have lost the right to live in the United States for criminal convictions. The Deported Veterans Support House has been serving about 20 people since 2013. The bunker provides services and legal resources for deportees who are prepared to live outside the United States. The support office has also identified and contacted 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 dismissed from the army, but he falsely believed that service in the military automatically guaranteed.
He eventually applied while living in Mexico, and in 2016, the English and civilian parts of the naturalization process. Applicants must pass oral and written English tests, and another must pass US government and history.
Last April, Governor Jerry Brown (D) pardoned Barajas-Varela for the crime that led to his deportation, thereby eliminating a potential barrier to his path to citizenship.
"He has shown that since his release from custody he has led an honest and upright life, shown a good moral character and behaved as a law-abiding citizen," said the pardon, which also cited medals, the Barajas-Varela while in the army received.
In December 2017, Barajas-Varela filed a federal suit to force the USCIS to make a decision on its citizenship claim, according to the American Civil Liberties of San Diego and Imperial Counties. The lawsuit was dismissed after the agency agreed to make a decision by Thursday.
Despite his citizenship, Barajas-Varela said he plans to stay in Mexico and live another year in The Bunker to continue his work supporting deported veterans. 19659017] "To make sure that if I go, it does not close … I have an obligation for these people," he said.
Two deported veterans now live in the bunker, Barajas-Varela said. The support house opened a second site last year in Juarez, Mexico, near the Texas border, and another is in the Dominican Republic.
For years veterans in Washington have received little or no attention because politicians It is unlikely that convicted criminals will be supported. Trump's stubborn immigration policy has led the debate on reducing legal immigration, creating a border wall and introducing travel restrictions for people from predominantly Muslim countries.
Margaret Stock, a retired army officer and lawyer in Anchorage, said that the majority of deported veterans, such as Barajas-Varela, were Green Card holders, who were honorably dismissed from service, but after their return to civilian life Life of a crime were convicted.
However, Barajas-Varela's case is unusual: Only a small handful of deported veterans have managed to legally return to the United States, Stock said.
"It is extremely rare, because it requires enormous resources to persuade the government to allow a naturalization case for someone who has been deported," said Stock, whom Barajas-Varela had consulted on his case years earlier.
Most Deported Veterans Are Charged for a Serious Crime Only a term that ranges from violent crime such as murder and rape to nonviolent crime such as theft and tax evasion, Stock said. People with this type of conviction are not eligible for US citizenship unless the governor of the state in which they were convicted decides to have a pardon.
Barajas-Varela is one of at least three deported veterans who received Brown's governorship last year. One of them is Marco Chavez, a Marine Corps veteran who regained his legal residence and returned to California in December. He had been deported to Mexico 15 years earlier for an animal cruelty conviction. The other is Erasmo Apodaca Mendizabal, a marine corps veteran convicted of burglary in 1996.
Daniel Torres became an American citizen in April 2016 after spending five years in The Bunker in Tijuana. Torres was illegally brought to the US as a child and admitted to the Marine Corps using a fake birth certificate. He joined the Marines in 2007 and served in Iraq.
Barajas-Varela said he plans to move back to Los Angeles to be with his family, to have a home and find a job there. He has an 11-year-old daughter who was born after being deported.
"I have a responsibility for my daughter to make sure she's in college," he said.
Theresa Vargas contributed to this article
Deported Veterans: Exiled for Forgetting Their Crime After Military Service
The Pentagon promised immigrants citizenship. Now it could help to deport her.
"It looks like we're afraid of foreigners": army turns away some green card owners