A deported veteran who launched a health clinic for other deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico, has been granted citizenship in the United States.
Hector Barajas-Varela was deported 10 years ago. On Thursday, in uniform and surrounded by supporters and fellow deported veterans, Barajas-Varela received the news from the Department of Homeland Security.
Barajas-Varela was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and arrived in the U.S. with his parents when he was 7. He grew up in the United States and enlisted in the Army in 1995.
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He received numerous accolades and awards, including the Army Commendation Medal and Humanitarian Service Medal. He was honorably discharged in 2001.
Following his service in the army, Barajas-Varela said he had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He said he became addicted to drugs, and in 2002, was sentenced to two years in prison and nearly a year in detention after he pleaded no contest to shooting at an occupied vehicle.
Once released, he was placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who deported him to Nogales, Sonora.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Barajas-Varela said that he was unable to adjust to life in Mexico, a country he was unfamiliar with, and made his way back into the U.S. before being deported again in 2010.
Upon his second deportation, Barajas-Varela settled in Tijuana where he worked directly with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in San Diego to launch a health clinic for other deported veterans.
Through the clinic, he helped dozens of veterans receive benefits, including psychological exams, employment counselors and help from lawyers.
He received a full pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2017 and has awaited citizenship since. He will take the naturalization oath on April 13 in San Diego.
"Finally, after years of fighting for the rights of deported veterans to return to the U.S., Hector will be able to return home as an American citizen," said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants' rights for the ACLU of California and one of Barajas' attorneys.
Former California State Assemblyman and San Diegan Nathan Fletcher, also a veteran, has represented several deportees who have sought Barajas-Varela’s return to the United States.
"All soldiers have the right to return home," he said in a statement to the ACLU.
A study published last year by the ACLU estimated that more than 230 U.S. Armed Forces war veterans have been deported. In 2016 there were more than 300,000 veterans living in the US who were not born in the country, a third of whom had not processed their citizenship.