Fourteen years ago, addressing the Senate, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont declared, “The zealousness of Congress and the White House to be tough on aliens has successfully snared permanent residents who have spilled their blood for our country.” He said the INS was prepared to deport vets “for even the most minuscule criminal offenses.”
Yeah. What else is new, senator? Leahy’s bill, the Fairness to Immigrant Veterans Act, died, as did Representative José Serrano’s version in the House.
Even outspoken characters like former congressman (and current San Diego mayor) Bob Filner, who chaired the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, are mostly powerless. “An incredible number of kids come back with an injury or illness that puts them in trouble with the law,” Filner once told the press. “To simply have these people deported is not a good way to thank them for their service.”
Right. That was a few years ago. Now Filner’s press director won’t even grant us an interview on the subject.
And now another Democrat from California, Representative Mike Thompson, has unveiled a plan to help. In 2011, he introduced the Support and Defend Our Military Personnel and Their Families Act. His press release about the bill said 45,000 noncitizen vets were enlisted at the time. The bill would presumably speed up the process of citizenship for vets and guarantee them a hearing in front of a judge; therefore it “helps to protect them from deportation.” Maybe—the bill was crushed in committee, but Thompson reintroduced it last February. The bill isn’t that different from the previous one. “I feel optimistic this time around,” Thompson tells us.
But it doesn’t mention those already deported. When pressed, Thompson says that the deportees (and those in deportation proceedings) will “certainly be taken into consideration.” That is, after the bill “shows progress.”
“I know that the situation is bad,” Thompson says. The congressman, a veteran himself, sounds grim. “What I think I would tell them, face-to-face, is that I very much appreciate what you’ve done and your service to our country, and we very much plan to give you the support that you’ve earned. And that goes for your family as well.”
Big Pac-Man and the deportee army have heard this for years.
It’s a bright day in Rosarito. The beach is only a few blocks away, and not far from the Deported Veterans Support House, the Baja Studios film lot sits quiet, locked down. The sets for Titanic are in there, along with 51 acres of soundstages and dressing rooms, just waiting for film crews to return. Inland, about a quarter mile away, Tijuana’s new convention center materializes in a field of golden grass and running dogs. It’s going to bring big business to town—concerts and car shows. So they say.
The banished warriors are in their car again. It’s time to go eat. Everywhere Barajas goes lately, it’s like a parade. The soldiers’ car has become two cars caravanning into town, all seats full.
The caravan pulls into a carnitas joint on one of the main drags into the southern end of the city. Carnitas Michoacána—braised pork done in the style of deep western Mexico—is a meal served here the way Big Pac-Man likes it. The platters are ordered by weight. Big Pac-Man orders a kilo.
The mountain of meat arrives, sizzling and fragrant. Tortillas fly around the table. Barajas leads the conversation and the laughter. He repeats, from earlier in the day, that he wants to go home for good. That he’d do anything to raise his daughter. To be good. “I don’t even know how to do a drive-by shooting,” he says. “They done me wrong.”
The young dude with the neck tattoos says, “Sure you do.” He holds out his left arm as if steering a car. He crosses his right arm over it, rests his wrist in the crook and squeezes off imaginary rounds. “That’s how,” he says.
Hector Barajas and Fabián Rebolledo attend to their food. Barajas smiles but shakes his head. “Nah, man. Staying out of trouble,” he says. “I’m never getting into trouble again.” It sounds almost like a prayer.