ROSARITO, Mexico – Alex Murillo lives a full life in the Mexican city of Rosarito, a 40-minute drive from the US border near Tijuana. During the day, he works in a call center, from where he speaks in a cheerful and attentive tone to retirees across the United States about their Medicare insurance. After work, he stuffs cleats, flags, and other items into a gym backpack and heads out to coach a youth football team whose players credit him for teaching them the American sport.
But Murillo, 43, does not want to stay in Rosarito, where he has lived for almost a decade. In fact, he feels that he does not belong to Mexico, a country he left when he was a child.
For him, his home is in Phoenix, Arizona, where he grew up, enlisted in the Navy, had four children … and later got into trouble. He was deported two days before Christmas 2011, after serving a sentence for transporting hundreds of kilos of marijuana.
Murillo is one of hundreds of immigrant military veterans who have faced expulsion for life to their countries of birth for committing crimes, sometimes minor, after their military service.
“I’ve always waited for the day when I can come back,” said Murillo, who wore, like many days, an Arizona Cardinals hoodie. “Everything I do here is positive, but I want to be at home with my family.”
He is hopeful that the wait is about to end.
The Biden administration said this month that it will begin allowing deported foreign-born veterans to return to the United States and will be helped to become US citizens.
“We are committed to bringing back service members, veterans and their immediate family members who were unfairly expelled and ensuring that they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security.
The announcement was momentous for veterans who have been in exile from the United States, often for more than a decade.
Robert Vivar, co-director of the Unified Resource Center for Deported U.S. Veterans in Tijuana, estimates that there are at least 1,000 deportees living in nearly 40 countries. In recent years, some two dozen of them have been allowed to return, particularly those who have committed the less serious crimes such as possession of firearms or driving under the influence of alcohol. Governors’ pardons have paved the way for some repatriations, although they can take years.
However, deciding who can be readmitted could be tricky: Some of the veterans committed serious crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault and, in Murillo’s case, serious drug offenses, and it is not clear that all can return.
“How are they going to determine who was ‘unjustly deported’?” Asked Héctor Barajas, 44, a decorated former paratrooper from the US Army who was convicted of shooting at a car in 2002, who returned in 2018 after a pardon from the US Army. former California Governor Jerry Brown.
The truth is that the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies will be in charge of assisting a group of people who will most likely require a series of services as they strive to rebuild their lives.
Separated from their families, they have often watched their lives fall further apart in the countries they had long left. Their spouses have abandoned them; your children have become troublesome people.
“It is not that now we are home, we have a job and we have our families back,” said Barajas, whose activism first drew attention to the plight of deported veterans.
Now a US citizen, Barajas has battled depression and diabetes. It has been difficult to connect with her 16-year-old daughter after her long absence.
“They’re going to have a hard time integrating,” said Rudy Melson, president of Consultants for America’s Veterans, an organization that helps veterans living abroad. “We will have to create resources, rules and programs. We owe it to these men and women that we kick out so that they can be whole again ”.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have fought major conflicts since the War of Independence. By serving honorably in the Army for a year, or even for a single day during the war, they are entitled by law to expedited naturalization. But that rarely happens.
Some never apply, believing the recruiters who told them that enlisting would automatically confer citizenship. Filing paperwork while deployed abroad, especially in war zones, is challenging. Some applications mailed from the grassroots have gone missing.
Many veterans said they didn’t realize they could be deported until an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official showed up at the end of their sentence. Many are aggrieved by the fact that, after serving their sentence, they face additional punishment.
“The country you were willing to die for threw you out like trash,” said Héctor López, 57, a veteran of the US Army, who was deported in 2006 and now helps run the resource center for deportees in Tijuana.
However, detractors of blanket readmissions say that any non-citizen who commits a serious crime faces possible deportation. “This is how the law works,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, at a 2019 hearing on deported veterans. “No one can be an exception.”
Changes in immigration law in 1996 made all green card holders more vulnerable to deportation by reclassifying some lower-level crimes as “felonies” for which removal is a mandatory measure. Drug offenses, theft and tax fraud became grounds for permanent expulsion, regardless of military service.
Gonzalo Fuentes, who came to the United States at age 3 and served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, was deported in 1999 for transporting a 26-kilogram load of marijuana to Louisiana from Texas.
“I only transported marijuana once,” said Fuentes, 54. “It’s all it took to complicate my situation.”
Desperate to return, he crossed the border illegally. He lived and worked in Corpus Christi, Texas, until he was deported again in 2009 after being arrested for having a broken taillight. That action added another crime to his record.
He currently lives in Cancun, where he works selling vacation packages to Americans and Canadians. But he longs to be with his parents, who are not healthy enough to travel. “All I want is a second chance,” he says. The Biden administration’s new commitment, he said, “is my last hope.”
Murillo said he had never considered himself a non-American.
“I grew up as a normal American kid,” he said. “He played baseball, basketball and soccer.”
He enlisted in the Navy after leaving high school in 1996. At the time, his parents were applying for citizenship, and he could have joined their application.
“Mom, don’t spend the money on that,” says her mother, Leticia Bernal, who told her. “They are going to give me nationality in the Navy.”
Murillo was deployed to the Middle East on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier as an aviation mechanic. At a Florida base in 1998, he was caught using marijuana and was eventually discharged for misconduct.
He returned to Phoenix with a broken marriage and assures that, from that moment, his life spiraled. He continued with drugs, lost his job installing satellite dishes and fell behind in paying child support after getting divorced.
In April 2009, he agreed to take a huge shipment of marijuana to St. Louis for $ 10,000, but was caught by a traffic police officer.
He received a 37-month prison sentence and, after his release in December 2011, he was put on a bus to Mexico.
In Rosarito he became a devoted advocate for deported veterans, raising awareness of their situation by calling members of Congress and creating videos for the public. His name was added to that of the deportees who are painted on the border wall of Tijuana.
Back in Arizona, her children ended up in the custody of child protective services. A few years later, his two sons began abusing fentanyl and living on the streets, until Murillo took them to Rosarito, where he helped them get on their way.
“They are strongest when they are around Alex,” said his mother, Mrs. Bernal.
On a recent night after soccer practice, his fellow coaches said they would miss him if he returned to the United States, but they also said he deserved it.
“We will be very happy when the coach returns, he has already paid his debts,” he said.
Gil Rodríguez, one of his colleagues.
Murillo said he just wants to go back where he feels he belongs.
“I grew up watching Scooby Doo, Andy Griffith, I love Lucy and The Price is Right, Oprah, baseball … and all things American,” he said. “All I am is American.”
Miriam Jordan is a correspondent in the National section. Covers the impact of migration on American society, culture, and economy. Before joining the Times, he covered immigration for more than a decade in the Wall Street Journal and was a correspondent in Brazil, Israel, Hong Kong and India. @mirjordan