October 7, 2015

Semper Fi. A one sided loyalty

The United States government started the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program in 2009. It strived to recruit undocumented immigrants into the army, however, citizenship is not granted by serving the military. So far, the experiences of the veterans, who have been deported back to Mexico, is far from encouraging.

Text by: Prometeo Lucero

Alfredo, “Al” Varon, came back home to die.

Alfredo Varón Guzmán´s story is a filled with contradictions. He was born in Barranquilla, Colombia in 1958 and lived most of his life in New York. “Back then, immigration was only a matter of paperwork. We arrived in U.S. as permanent, legal residents”. During his 6 years of service, he was deployed by NATO to Germany where he received 6 medals and 3 commendations.

Varón tells his story during an interview at the Deported Veteran Support Center, a shelter with open gates to former members of the army who have been deported, most of them Mexicans who have been sent back to Tijuana, Baja California.

“When we joined the army, we were promised our citizenship, meaning, if we delivered, we would be in the right path to obtain it, issued immediately and free of charge. Nevertheless, the army only disposed of us and said good-bye. I thought, as many other people did back then, that a migratory promise had been made”.

Once he resumed his civilian life, he was detained. His felony was attempting to renew a permit to access military facilities, which he had been using since the time he was an active asset. They went over his file and told him that Immigration would like to talk to him. He was to be deported.

His crime (paid since 1988) was considered backdated and, despite paying the fine and fighting the case from 1998 to 2003, he could not avoid being deported. On the day he was supposed to be in court, he was undergoing a surgical procedure to have his spleen removed and the judge rejected the doctor´s letter. He was deported in absentia. Back at his mother´s house, convalescent and right after the operation, he was violently taken out by federal agents. He had to use a T-shirt to stop his abdominal bleeding. The judge, a navy veteran, claimed to support his case, however, his hands were tied.

On the plane back to Bogota, there were only him and two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who left him at the airport without money or documents. His only belongings were a short, his T-shirt and a pair of sandals. The immigration agents went back to U.S. without a word.

The road back home

He didn’t speak Spanish, but he was back in Colombia, a country unknown to him, a country that even today suffers from internal conflicts and. in addition to that, a country with facilities of the very same army he once served. A place where his life could be in danger.

Within that unfamiliar environment, whenever he approached a public servant looking for assistance he heard things like “Who is this gringo? He doesn’t look Colombian, what is he doing? Is he from the army? Why was he deported?”. “Negative mysticism and paranoia were created among left-wing public servants.

He didn’t do any better among right-wing servants either. They thought he was keeping record of how U.S.´s military support was being used. “Bottom line, nobody trusted me and everybody was reluctant to speak or be related to me”.

Alfredo Varón, a bitter exile.

On July 16th, 2015, after 12 years of fighting for his migratory status, Alfredo managed to acquire a humanitarian visa that enabled him to receive medical attention and, only then, was he able to go back to U.S.

He arrived to the Chula Vista Hospital on a stretcher. There, he was able to see his children and his 13 year old grandson again. He hadn’t seen them since 2003, when he was deported. Two days later, on July 18th, he died.

Alfredo Varón´s case is one of the few exceptions in which a veteran has been allowed to go back to U.S. A few weeks earlier, on June 18th, Jose Solorio, a former marine (originally from Mexico) at Camp Pendleton, had been issued a humanitarian visa to be treated in Seattle. He only made it to La Jolla, California, where he died of pulmonary fibrosis. Besides Varón and Solorio, no other veteran had managed to acquire a humanitarian visa nor a permit to go back (alive) to the U.S.

Gonzalo Chaidez, Juan Montemayor and Hector Barrios, the latest awarded a Purple Heart due to his services in Vietnam, died in Tijuana and Rosarito, Baja California between 2014 and 2015. None of them was allowed to go back home in any other way than in a coffin.

Semper Fidelis

Little is known about born Mexicans fighting abroad, but they have been present in Vietnam, Germany, Korea, Kosovo and Iraq among others services or combats on behalf of the United States.

The story of the veterans deported to Mexico seems to have a common script: they are children of immigrant parents, many of them Mexicans, they arrived in U.S. at a young age, grew and lived speaking English and submerged in the American culture. Mexico and any other country became something foreign to them.

Some of them out of patriotism, others thinking that it would grant them American citizenship automatically, they enlisted and completed their military service. Some of them even fought abroad and came back from the military into their everyday life suffering of Post-Traumatic Stress, an affliction that leads them to behave antisocially, self-destructively, aggressively and, sometimes, it even leads to suicidal tendencies. Once they took out the uniform and became civilians, they committed a misdemeanor or felony and, after doing their time, they were deported immediately and definitively. They rank, achievements and medals were not taken into consideration.

The country they fought for, kicked them out.

“Deporting Private Ryan”

Craig Shagin, a lawyer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is well versed in the legal aspect of this issue. He represents a long list of customers from almost every country in the world, regarding immigration issues. His firm, Shagin Law Group, brags about other firms having more lawyers, fancier facilities and bigger income “but our customers are the most interesting of them all”.

Among them, 25 deported veterans from Italy, Canada, Germany, Colombia, Mexico, Belize, Panama, Honduras and U.K., according to Craig via E-mail.

Shagin wrote an article called “Deporting Private Ryan: the far from honorable condition of the illegal citizens in U.S. armed forces”. The article was published in Widener Law Journal in 2007. In it, Shagin explains several key points in the veterans’ deportation process.

“The U.S. does not deport individuals as a punishment. That would be cruel and would transgress the individual´s constitutional rights –he wrote-. However, what the country does do is deporting aliens as an administrative issue, to assure its immigration laws are properly enforced. Alien residents were conscripts and served during the Civil War, World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam”.

In his article Shagin claims that “The enforcement of the immigration law and its removal procedures are an ever changing maze. A case begins when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) presents a notice, through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), bounding the individual to the immigration court jurisdiction.

Before 1988, the chances of being deported were minimal. However, since 1998, 5 different laws affecting civilians and military have been either created or modified.

A man stares at the U.S. from Tijuana´s wall.

In his article, Shagin exposes that the U.S. deports the veterans to prevent the hazard that “individuals with vices or criminal conducts from another culture” might cause to society. Nevertheless, he adds, the U.S. seems to over-look the fact that the emotional consequences they suffer, are the result of the service they offered to that country, therefore the country has the moral duty to look after them.

More reasons to be concerned

“U.S. military service might be seen as a service on behalf of an enemy in the eyes of another country. It might even be seen as a crime, if the country (where they are deported to) was not actively involved in a war”.

“The U.S. is not a member of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, mostly because it doesn’t want its soldiers, and their actions, to be bounded to it. By letting a veteran go, the U.S. would be leaving him under the RSICC jurisdiction”.

A modest victory

Nowadays, defense attorneys in the U.S. have the obligation to warn their customers about the “collateral” consequences of pleading guilty, which in most cases, means deportation, as in Alfredo´s case. There are actually mandatory legal precedents at the Supreme Court, such as the Padilla vs. Kentucky case.

Nevertheless, according to Craig Shagin “There are lawyers who often lead their customers to self-destruction”

The bunker, a deported veterans´ shelter.

New recruits looking for citizenship

In November 2008, Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, signed a memorandum to implement a pilot program to recruit non-citizens into the armed forces. The plan´s main supporter was Margaret D. Stock, an expert lawyer regarding immigration laws and national security.

In 2009, the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program was implemented. Its main goal was recruiting undocumented people to serve in the armed forces. This program allowed some non-citizens to join the armed forces and request their citizenship without having a previous residence permit. On MAVANI´s Facebook profile it is advertised as “the fastest way to obtain your citizenship if you weren’t born in the U.S.”.

During a Skype interview, Margaret Stock, MAVNI´s main supporter, explains two key points: citizenship is not granted by the military service but through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) process.

This year, the program received 4,000 recruits. During this fiscal year, started in October, 1,200 people have signed in. The program attempts to recruit people with necessary and specific abilities, especially doctors, nurses, interpreters, translators of several languages (Spanish and English are not among them). The recruits are those who do not count with a green card but have some kind of legal stay, refugees…

Once a recruit has been accepted by MAVANI, he has to enroll for a minimum of 4 years (in the case of interpreters), health-care personnel must sign for 3 years of active duty or 6 years in the Reserved Forces. In addition to this, there is a contractual obligation to remain in service for 8 years, in case they are ever required, even if they are not active at the time.

The program allows the recruits to acquire their naturalization at the end of their basic training, which has a duration of 10 weeks, provided certain conditions are met, such as not having a criminal record. This, according to Stock, may prevent future deportations, unless the recruit failed to complete the training or committed a crime before obtaining his citizenship. “However, that hasn’t happened”.


Tijuana beaches, mutilated lives.

On the beaches of Tijuana, at the border wall, you can see the names and rank of the deported soldiers painted on one of the big fences. Every Sunday, many of them gather with the relatives of deported civilians at the Parque de la Amistad. Those Sundays tend to be emotional: they use megaphones to protest, there are mariachi music and informational stands while entire families talk to each other through the fence, barely being able to touch they relatives. In the meantime the Border Patrol keeps an eye on them.

Most of the immigrants deported to Mexico through Tijuana establish themselves at El Bordo, a canal that runs through part of the city. There are cardboard houses built against the canal´s walls, under the bridges, in the underground and in the canal´s tributaries. In there, getting heroine “globo”, is a very simple thing to accomplish and the police regularly raids the place to throw the people out. Those people arrive there because they don’t have any belongings and are not oriented when they are sent back to Mexico.

To many deported soldiers, their new beginning starts among needles and garbage, despite the medals and honors they earned during their military service.


Reproduction is authorized as long as the author, the text and the following are clearly quoted “This article is part of the project En el Camino, produced by red de Periodistas de a Pie, with the support of Open Society Foundations. To find out more about this project visit: enelcamino.periodistasdeapie.org.mx”



Prometeo Lucero

Prometeo Lucero


Fotoperiodista freelance enfocado en temas de derechos humanos, migración y medio ambiente. Ha colaborado con La Jornada, grupo Expansión, Proceso, Desacatos, Biodiversidad Sustento y Culturas, Letras Libres, Variopinto, agencias Latitudes Press, Zuma Press, AP y Reuters, entre otros. Sus fotos aparecen en los libros 72migrantes (Almadía, 2011), Secretaría de Educación Pública (2010); Altares y Ofrendas en México (2010); Cartografías Disidentes (Aecid, 2008). Ha publicado los libros "Dignas: Voces de defensoras de derechos humanos" (2012) y "Acompañando la Esperanza" (2013). Finalista en los concurso"Rostros de la Discriminación" (México, 2012) “Los Trabajos y los Días” (Colombia, 2013) y “Hasselblad Masters” (2014).