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Just before dusk, Carlos Torres gets ready for work on the night shift.
The memories of his former life hang all around his concrete box of a home in the Aquiles Serdan section of Reynosa, one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities. A black POW/MIA flag hangs over the bed in a cramped bedroom; yellowed photos of Fort Bragg, N.C., sit on a dresser; an Army jacket rests on a makeshift clothes rack.
These days, Torres, 61, puts on a different kind of uniform: He tucks a blue button-down shirt, emblazoned with "Seguridad,” into crisp black jeans, adjusts his black baseball cap and makes sure his ID card is clipped on tight. Every afternoon he gets in his used Ford sedan, the suspension shot to hell, and navigates the rutted streets of this border city, which has been locked in a cycle of drug cartel violence for half a dozen years.
He points the car toward a drab industrial park on the edge of town where he earns a little over 80 cents an hour making sure employees who earn even less building air compressors don’t pocket the parts.
Forty-four years after he volunteered for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Torres is among an untold number of U.S. military veterans who’ve been deported to Mexico over the past decade after arrests or prison sentences. In cities and towns up and down the Mexico-Texas border, former soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines, who fought in conflicts from Southeast Asia to Iraq, try to make a living in the midst of a grinding drug war.
Nearly all the deported veterans in Mexico were legal residents of the United States who, for a variety of reasons, failed to finish the naturalization process and then were convicted of crimes after they got out of the service.
Immigration experts and lawyers say the number of veteran deportations has increased in recent years, as veterans have been caught in the same dragnet that has led to the removal of record numbers of convicted criminals who were staying in the U.S. without legal permission.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have joined immigration advocates in raising fundamental questions about the issue: Should legal immigrants who serve honorably in the U.S. military during wartime receive protection from deportation if they run afoul of the law? Should veterans ejected from the U.S. after serving prison time for nonviolent felonies ever be allowed to return?
Last month a group of congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would make it easier for some veterans to avoid deportation. But that legislation, like previous congressional attempts, is likely to fall victim to the current political paralysis over immigration. In this climate, even advocacy groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars express little sympathy for immigrant veterans who commit crimes.
Regardless of the politics surrounding them, many deported veterans say they feel like strangers in a homeland they left as children.
"A lot of people look at me funny when I speak Spanish because I mispronounce some words,” Torres says. "They’ll laugh.”
He left Mexico when he was an infant and grew up in Texas and California. At 18, as a permanent legal resident but not a citizen, he volunteered for the Army toward the end of the Vietnam War, and he served four years, until 1976.
Though he hoped to go to war, his unit never deployed. He had nine children in the United States, including four sons who would go on to serve a combined 11 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1994, he went to prison on charges of marijuana possession and delivery, and he was deported after a four-year term in state prison. He returned to the U.S. illegally a couple of times he says, to see children and an ailing mother, and in 2010 he was deported again to Mexico. He has lived in Reynosa ever since.
He says it will never feel like home.
"I look American. I act American. I dress American,” he says. "I am an American.”
Andy Lopez, a Desert Storm veteran who was deported two years ago after serving a five-year sentence for drug trafficking, said his new home of Nuevo Progreso, across the border from the Weslaco area, feels similarly foreign. "I don’t think I’ll ever get used to living here,” he said “I won’t. I don’t belong here.”
Some deported veterans say they find themselves targets of cartel recruiters attracted to their military training.
Bibiana Marín, whose husband is a Marine veteran deported in 2008, said traffickers approached the couple after they settled in Ciudad Acuña, across the border from Del Rio. "They knew he was in the military,” she said. "We were watched all the time, threatened. I was bringing the kids to Del Rio every day for school and they wanted me to carry drugs.”
She said the couple, fearing for their safety, returned to Texas soon afterward. Her husband was charged with illegal re-entry and found guilty by a federal jury in February.
"You worry that if you stand out, they’re going to investigate you and see what you’re about and try to get you into their business,” Lopez said. "I don’t bother anybody. I don’t go to places I don’t need to go. I don’t really go out after dark.”
Deported veterans say they are paying too high a price for what were often nonviolent crimes.
"I screwed up. I understand that,” said José María Martínez, a Vietnam veteran who was arrested on marijuana trafficking charges in 1997 and later deported. "I did my five years (in federal prison). You’ve got so many U.S. citizens who do worse, and they are still there. But I was deported. That’s twice I’m being punished.”
Deported veterans also lose access to Social Security and some Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. The Social Security Administration stops sending benefits checks once they receive notice of a deportation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to the agency. Veterans can still receive VA disability and pension checks but lose access to VA clinics and hospitals (in some cases, the VA reimburses foreign medical care).
Despite their deportations, many veterans in Mexico remain steadfastly patriotic, their bedrooms full of military regalia. Old uniforms haunt Mexican closets.
"The hardest part is being told you’re not wanted, being told you’re useless,” Torres says. "I swore allegiance when I raised my right hand.”
Caught in a wide net
No one officially tracks the number of military veterans who have been deported, but legal analysts say the practice accelerated with the Obama administration’s aggressive push to oust immigrants with criminal backgrounds as part of a failed strategy to broker an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
"That didn’t happen, but the deportations accelerated anyway,” said Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration attorney considered the foremost authority on military veterans facing deportation. According to internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents obtained by USA Today in 2013, agents’ performance measures that year consisted of a single metric: the number of criminal immigrants deported.
"Agents were combing through the records so they could get their statistics up high,” Stock said. "There was no exception for military veterans. So this giant net trapped a lot of them too.”
ICE officials say they weigh an immigrant’s veteran status when deciding whether to push for deportation. But in reality, veterans convicted of what immigration law defines as an aggravated felony — a confusing, sometimes contradictory set of offenses — face almost certain deportation, Stock said.
Two 1996 laws prevented immigration judges from considering the military service of a veteran convicted of an aggravated felony.
Yet "in the immigration code, the definition doesn’t make sense: it includes nonfelonies and nonaggravated offenses,” Stock said. "The definition is constantly being updated and is incredibly complex, and differs in different parts of the country. People’s lives depend on a definition most lawyers can’t seem to understand.”
While the definition includes violent crimes such as rape and sexual assault, it also covers less serious offenses such as perjury, tax evasion and obstruction of justice.
And the ICE effort didn’t just target immigrants here illegally; it sought out all noncitizens with criminal records.
The vast majority of deported veterans were green card holders, legal permanent residents who, for whatever reason, failed to complete their naturalization process before they were arrested. Some veterans incorrectly assumed — or were told by recruiters — that when they took their military oath, they were receiving citizenship as well. Others say deployments to war zones interrupted the process. Still others simply failed to pursue citizenship, not believing they could face deportation after an arrest.
On Martínez’s military separation form, a box indicating U.S. citizen is checked. The apparent clerical error caused years of confusion. “Imagine, here I am a registered Republican,” said Martínez, who used the form to vote in elections for years before he was told during his prison term that he wasn’t a citizen and faced deportation.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security began introducing basic training naturalizations, taking advantage of a World War I-era law that makes any service member serving during wartime immediately eligible for citizenship. While that has helped more recent service members, it was no use to those who fought during the Persian Gulf War or the earlier years of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Everyone at the Pentagon had forgotten” about the law, Stock said.
Ironically, the military in recent years has discovered that noncitizen service members actually fare better than their citizen counterparts. Legal residents are far less likely to drop out during the first months of military service, and they possess valuable language skills, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Naval Analyses. "The services should develop strategies to recruit non-citizens more effectively,” the report recommended.
Despite the high esteem military authorities have for noncitizen service members, the outlook for legislation that would make deportation less likely for veterans convicted of crimes seems poor. A bill that would have given immigration judges discretion in considering an immigrant’s military service died before a congressional vote in 2013.
A bill that would make it easier for deported veterans convicted of misdemeanor crimes to return to the U.S. was filed in the U.S. House of Representatives last month. The GovTrack website gives it a 1 percent chance of passage, and future legislation appears blocked by the overall impasse on immigration reform.
'You belong to the United States'
When Frank de la Cruz, a Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf War, was deported to Mexico after a felony drunken-driving conviction, he could barely bring himself to be near the bridge that connects Juárez to El Paso.
"Just being around the border, the bridge, that brought tears to my eyes,” de la Cruz, 47, says. "Now that it’s been so long, I can actually talk about it. Before, man, I felt there was a sadness, and it brought tears to my eyes. You’re out there with your buddies out on the ocean, in a boat, and you feel like you belong. You belong to the United States.”
Today he tries to lead a binational life. Two of his children go to school in El Paso, making the bridge crossing in the morning and afternoon with their mother, a U.S. citizen. "My children don’t really like living in Mexico, but they don’t want to leave Dad,” he says. "I’m lucky my wife hasn’t left me.”
His father has dementia; and his mother was just diagnosed with cancer, he says. Both live in El Paso. "I can’t go see them,” he says. "That’s the ass kicker right there.”
De la Cruz was 6 years old when his parents brought him from Juárez to El Paso. After four years in the Navy he spent another three in the Army National Guard. Upon his return, he racked up several DWIs, including a felony conviction.
Because he had never been naturalized, he was first deported in 1998. After an illegal return and another DWI arrest, he was deported again four years ago, according to court records.
"When we got to port, all we did when we got off the boat was drink,” he says. "Everybody in the military, their source of relaxation mostly is drinking. In the future I hope that instead of kicking you out of the country they send you to rehab.”
That is just what Gerardo Armijo is hoping.
Armijo, 41, was a gunner on his second deployment to Iraq when his tank hit an improvised explosive device, or IED, near Tikrit. He was on a routine patrol checking on oil pipelines and electricity transmission wires when the tank rolled over the hidden bomb. "The underbelly was hit pretty bad,” he says. "I didn’t feel anything at the time from the waist down.”
Armijo, born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. as an infant, had re-enlisted after 9/11 and planned to make the Army his career, hoping to go to Afghanistan next. But the explosion ended that, and he left the Army when his term ended a few months later. His physical wounds were largely healed, but he returned to the Rio Grande Valley with unseen injuries.
Like many returning veterans, Armijo began to self-medicate with illegal drugs. Over the next few years, he was arrested a handful of times on marijuana and cocaine possession charges. He was diverted to a special veterans court in Hidalgo County aimed at helping former service members who have committed low-level offenses and are in need of mental health or substance abuse help.
But while local authorities considered therapy a better response to his drug crimes than incarceration, federal immigration officials saw Armijo, who had never completed his citizenship application, as a "criminal alien.” A few months from finishing his probation requirements for veterans court, he was summoned by ICE, which began removal proceedings, his lawyer says. After several months at a federal immigration detention center, he was released on his own recognizance.
His attorney, Carlos M. Garcia, said it would be wrong to deport Armijo for crimes related to the same mental health issues plaguing thousands of returning veterans. "The sacrifices he made outweigh the negatives in his life,” Garcia said.
The argument might have resonated. Last week, immigration officials closed deportation proceedings against Armijo, who is now pursuing a citizenship claim through his mother, an American citizen. Officials did not give a reason for closing the case but could reopen it if Armijo fails to get citizenship.
'Semper Fi, brother'
José María Martínez, 66, moves down the main avenue of Nuevo Progreso like the mayor, exchanging playful greetings with street vendors, hairstylists and bar owners. While the tourist trade in most Mexican border towns has been decimated by drug violence, business in Nuevo Progreso is booming.
A steady stream of American retirees continues to pour across a highly secured border bridge, filling pharmacies, dental offices and shot bars.
Martínez might look like a typical Nuevo Progreso merchant — he runs a busy cellular phone shop — but a close view of his wristband indicates an important difference. Bearing the words "22 Every Day,” it commemorates the rise in veterans’ suicides. Look closer and you can spot a tiny U.S. Marine pin in his cowboy hat.
"If I’m walking down the street and a Marine sees this, right away they say, ‘Semper Fi, brother,’ ” Martínez says. "When I see somebody with a Vietnam veteran cap, I go up and say, ‘Who you with?’ If it says, ‘Marines,’ then it’s on.”
After a combat tour in Vietnam, Martínez, who was born in Matamoros but was brought across the border when he was a young boy, worked a number of jobs, including welder fitter and personnel manager, but eventually got involved in drug trafficking. He served five years in federal prison after he was stopped at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Sarita with about 270 pounds of marijuana in suitcases on the back seat.
The adrenaline rush mimicked the one he experienced in combat.
"There’s no drug, man-made or otherwise, better than adrenaline,” he says. "I found that crossing stuff, transporting illegally, that was my rush. You can feel it in your bones, in every vibration of your body. It’s unexplainable, my brother. A combat veteran can understand. Nobody else can.”
Martinez has been in Nuevo Progreso since 2002 and has adapted to life in Mexico better than most deported veterans. But he remains bitter about his loss of Social Security benefits. “That’s money I put into it,” he says.
Yet he says he remains patriotic. "It will be with us till the day we die,” he says. "Our love for the USA is so deep it cannot be taken away from us. The U.S. is trying to take all those things away from us, but they can’t and never will be able to.”
'Tired of the hustle'
Carlos Torres finishes his 12-hour shift at the maquiladora and returns in the early morning darkness to the home he shares with three dogs, including a pushy Chihuahua named El Comandante. It wasn’t easy getting the job. He would go months without work.
"It feels good putting the uniform on again,” he says. “Before, it was real depressing not working.”
Violence always seems to hover around the periphery of his new life. Before he bought his car, he was jumped early one morning coming home on a city bus. Two years ago, a shootout erupted outside his front gate, leaving four dead a few feet from his door.
A neighbor who tried to open a cybercafe lost everything when cartel extortionists stole his inventory because he couldn’t pay protection money. "The State Department has travel advisories against Americans coming to Mexico,” he says. "Yet they’re deporting military veterans to Mexico?”
His greatest sadness is not being able to visit his family. He has several grandkids he’s never met. "I can’t even hug them,” he says. "I can’t even hold them.”
At 61, it’s not retirement that beckons, but a years-long scramble to make ends meet.
The last time he was deported, his judge told him he faced another 20 years in prison if he crossed illegally again.
"I might just turn myself in when I’m tired of the hustle and the hardships down here,” he says. "I might just go to some federal prison somewhere, where I can have a job, three hots and a cot, and all the friends you want. I’ve been there.”
¡Ahora Sí! staff writer Marlon Sorto contributed to this report.