After earning a pardon in 2017 from California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, a former legal immigrant U.S. veteran who committed a crime and was deported to Mexico will return to the United States Friday to be sworn in as a citizen.
In 2002, Hector Barajas was convicted of shooting at a vehicle and deported back to Mexico. Barajas quickly sneaked back into the U.S., was apprehended and deported again in 2010, after being caught driving without a license. After settling in Tiajuana, Barajas founded the Deported Veterans Support House and established the Banished Veterans page on Facebook.
Supporters of Barajas believe his receipt of American citizenship is long overdue recognition of a man who served in the armed forces of his adopted country, made bad decisions but redeemed himself. They also hope that other veterans like him will be rewarded similarly.
“Hector’s case is in many ways a classic example how draconian our immigration laws have become,” said Bardis Vakili, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, which fought in court for Barajas’ U.S. citizenship.
“The same unforgiving deportation machine that routinely sweeps up hardworking immigrants simply seeking a better life has also forced countless veterans like Hector, who served this country honorably and risked their lives on its behalf, from their homeland,” Vakili said.
In a phone interview with The Washington Times, Barajas said that receiving U.S. citizenship is “an opportunity to get back with my family and start my life over again.”
Critics claim that Barajas has taken advantage of a U.S. immigration system, claiming a questionable pardon in order to avoid penalties.
“It seems a travesty to be granting pardons to violent foreign criminals, merely because they spent time in our armed forces. Especially in light of the fact that most of them remain subject to deportation specifically because they failed to seek U.S. citizenship,” said Matthew J. O’Brien, a former immigration official who is now director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Activists argue that after legal immigrants have served the sentences for their crimes, they should not be punished further. They also contend that being deported punishes them beyond what others would face.
The Washington Times reported: That is the case for Mr. Barajas, who came to the U.S. as a boy. He joined the Army as a legal permanent resident.
He could have applied for citizenship, but he said it just wasn’t a high priority at the time. In court papers, he claims he had been led to believe he was automatically a citizen by dint of his service — a common belief among green-card holders in uniform.
He received an honorable discharge from the military in 2001, but his problems soon began. He notched a DUI conviction in 2001, then in 2002 was driving with friends while high on crack when one of them shot at another car.
Regarding the shooting, Barajas said, “That was 15 years ago, the incident. I’m more mature now, older. We all make mistakes. I’m almost 100 percent sure I’m not going to make a mistake as stupid as that was, putting myself in a situation.”
Barajas also defended his decision to return to the U.S. following his first deportation.
“I didn’t want to stay in Mexico. Back then, I was like, ‘This is not my country.’ I didn’t want to be here,” he said, noting that during his time between deportations he was “not committing crimes and not doing anything illegal.”
In his pardon, Gov. Brown did not cite Barajas’ crimes, instead saying, “Since his release from custody, he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character, and conducted himself as a law abiding citizen.”
Under U.S. law, because Barajas’ record is now cleared of serious felonies, and because he served honorably during a period of declared hostilities, he is eligible for citizenship.
Dan Cadman, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said veteran cases require careful consideration, and leniency might be appropriate in some instances, but an honorable discharge should not be the only prerequisite.
“I have a lot of unanswered questions in this particular case,” he said.
When asked by The Times if Friday would mark the first time he has been able to reach U.S. soil since 2010, Barajas said, “Yes. Well, legally.”