Photos by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Text by Celeste Lavin and Ye Charlotte Ming
Veterans of the United States military celebrated Independence Day together with fireworks, laughter and each other. Unlike many Americans celebrating the day, this group watched the fireworks through the slatted metal of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, from the beach of Tijuana.
Though each served in the United States military, they have all since been deported. Sent to Mexico after years of living in the U.S. legally with their families, these immigrant veterans still see the U.S. as home.
“The 4th of July is a holiday we celebrated in the U.S,” deported veteran Hector Barajas said. “Where I am currently living doesn't change my sense of home, patriotism and who my loyalty to is.”
Barajas was brought to the U.S. as a child in 1984 and gained legal residency. When he turned 18, he enlisted in the Army where he served for six years. After an honorable discharge in 2001, Barajas was convicted of felony for firing a gun into a vehicle. No one was hurt in the incident, and Barajas served two years in prison. But immediately after his release in 2004, Barajas was deported.
He has since founded the Deported Veterans Support House, also known as “The Bunker," to offer resources and housing for deported veterans like himself. The group also advocates for policy changes to stop the deportation of U.S. military veterans.
An estimated 11,000 non-citizens serve in the U.S. military right now, with the promise of citizenship during or immediately following their service. Those who leave the military early or, like Barajas, who are convicted of a crime after serving can be deported.
This was not always the case. The deportation of immigrant veterans began in 1996 when U.S. immigration laws shifted and military service experience would no longer be considered in deportation cases. There are an estimated 230 deported veterans living in 34 countries, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year. Many of those veterans served in active wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Upon returning to civilian life, immigrant veterans encounter the same difficulties facing American-born veterans such as unemployment and PTSD. Veterans who are deported however, are no longer entitled to the Veterans Affairs’ compensation and medical assistance.
The Bunker steps in to provide a needed respite for these veterans who have few other options, offering them community, meals and temporary shelter.
Barajas has hope that he will be able to return legally to his home and family on the other side of the border fence. He was pardoned for his crime in California and is now in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship.
“I don't really get too many feelings at the wall,” Barajas said, “except for how close home is, in a sense, but so far.”
Scenes from the U.S.-Mexico border
The United States and Mexico are divided by a 2,000-mile-long border, and nearly a third of it has fence. Here is what it looks like on the border.