14 Years After Being Deported, A U.S. Veteran Is Finally Coming Home

"I paid dearly for everything that happened."

Hector Barajas-Varela is finally coming home. 14 years after he was deported, the Mexican immigrant and U.S. Army veteran was granted U.S. Citizenship. On April 13, he'll head to San Diego, California for a naturalization ceremony to make it official.

"I look forward to opening my G.I. Bill so I can get my education," Barajas-Varela told A Plus. "I only have a high school education and want to make sure my daughter is taken care of... it made me extremely happy. I'm finally going to return to my family."

Hector Barajas-Varela
Hector Barajas-Varela

Barajas-Varela was born in Mexico but grew up in San Diego before getting his green card in 1992. He joined the army in 1995 and was honorably discharged in 2001, but struggled to adjust to life after the military. Shortly after being discharged, he was arrested and convicted for shooting at an occupied vehicle outside Los Angeles. Barajas-Varela served 13 months in prison, followed by one month on parole. He was deported in 2004.

Barajas-Varela says he understands why some people think he should have been deported, but he disagrees. In fact, Barajas-Varela said he doesn't think any military veterans should be subject to deportation. If you commit a crime, you should go to prison, he told A Plus, but he doesn't believe it is moral to deport men and women who had served in the military.

"I paid dearly for everything that happened," he said. "Now I'm returning back, not on anybody's mercy, but on the criteria of citizenship for military service... yes, somebody could have been seriously hurt. But it was 14 years ago… it doesn't mean I'm that person or that incident today."

Barajas-Varela didn't apply for citizenship after his military service because he, like many immigrant veterans, assumed serving in the military guaranteed your citizenship. 

Hector Barajas-Varela
Hector Barajas-Varela

By 2010, six years after being deported, Barajas-Varela ended up in Tijuana, Mexico, where he founded The Deported Veterans Support House, a shelter known as "The Bunker. Barajas-Varela has housed about 20 veterans there since 2013, and helped serve hundreds more. The Bunker also helps deported veterans apply for military benefits, find housing, get a job placement, get food donations, go into rehab, and even get their citizenship. Through a relationship with the ACLU of Southern California, Barajas-Varela can help deported veterans with legal issues. He also works with other organizations like Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported that do similar work.

In 2016, Barajas-Varela applied for citizenship for the first time. He passed the English and civics tests and then, last April, was pardoned by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Then, last week, his citizenship became official. He plans to stay in Mexico for the next year to make sure The Bunker can function without him, and then he hopes to start a similar organization in the States.

Barajas-Varela told A Plus that a common criticism of his pardon and subsequent citizenship is that the United States is a nation of laws, and he agrees to a point. But he also noted that many laws, historically, have been unjust, citing the laws that prevented African Americans from voting and those that subjugated Native Americans. He believes the laws that allow for the deporting of veterans are among those laws, and — while he's thrilled to officially receive his paperwork — he doesn't think it changes who he already is: an American, and a United States veteran.

"A piece of paper is only going to change validating me as a citizen," he said. "When I served in the military, there was no distinction between me and my peers. And I don't think I'm less American than anyone else."

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