U.S. Marine veteran Marco Chavez on Saturday, April 14 expresses his gratitude toward U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas for fighting for deported vets and helping them get back home to the United States. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragan welcomes U.S. Army Veteran Hector Barajas, D-Los Angeles, back to the United States on Saturday, April 14. Barajas was deported in 2010. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
With his mother, Margarita Barajas Varela, by his side, U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas is welcomed home Saturday, April 14. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
U.S. Army Veteran Hector Barajas is welcomed home Saturday, April 14. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
U.S. Army Veteran Hector Barajas is welcomed home Saturday, April 14, and his mother, Margarita Barajas Varela, is presented with a flag by Congressman Mark Takano of Riverside County. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
U.S. Army Veteran Hector Barajas is welcomed home and given a big hug by his mother, Margarita Barajas Varela, on Saturday, April 14. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
U.S. Marine veteran Marco Chavez speaks with U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas, on Saturday, April 14, thanking him for fighting for deported vets and helping them get back to the United States. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
U.S. Army Veteran Hector Barajas is welcomed home Saturday, April 14 by Congressman Mark Takano of Riverside. (Photo by Tracey Roman)
Hector Barajas was beaming.
It was his second day back in his hometown of Compton and the U.S. Army veteran was surrounded by family, friends and elected leaders, all welcoming him back the United States. A blue, white, and red ‘Welcome Hector’ sign hung outside the family home.
He wasn’t away for serving overseas.
Barajas, 40, was deported in 2010 after he spent time in prison for shooting at a vehicle. Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him in 2017, noting his distinguished military service and advocacy work. And with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on Friday, April 13.
Now he’s home.
“I could have given up and there were times where I ended up homeless. I wanted to take my life,” said Barajas, 40. “I decided to turn my life around … and help my other veterans also in need.”
Barajas said veterans come back home wearing a “different uniform of PTSD.”
“We’re not saying if you commit a crime, you shouldn’t do the time,” Barajas said. “But you should get treatment after you go through substance abuse or what not.”
Barajas lived in Tijuana, where in 2013 he founded the Deported Veterans Support House. It provides shelter for deported veterans and helps them apply for benefits provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
His organization advocates for legislation ending the deportation of U.S. veterans and seeks to improve the well-being of veterans not only in Tijuana but in other countries where they wound up.
On Saturday, April 14, Congressional representatives Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-San Pedro, and Mark Takano, D-Riverside, along with city leaders including Compton Councilwoman Janna Zurita, gathered at his home to welcome him back. They also spoke against the deportation of veterans.
“If you die while you are fighting, the U.S. government will make you a citizen automatically,” Barragán said. “But if you serve and you come home, you could still be deported. This is a huge injustice.”
Veterans who are not U.S. citizens can be deported for criminal convictions. Estimates put the number of deported veterans anywhere from 240 to 1,400.
Barajas became a lawful permanent U.S. resident as a teenager in 1992. He enlisted in the Army after high school and served in the 82nd Airborne Division.
He could have applied to become a naturalized citizen, but he thought his honorable military service made that automatic — a common, but incorrect, assumption. He was still a permanent resident, and people with that status, veteran or not, can be deported for committing crimes or other violations.
Margarita Barajas, 65, agrees that her son made a bad decision and deserved to be punished after he shot at a vehicle. But he and others like him don’t deserve to be removed from the country, she said.
Barajas struggled upon his re-entry to civilian life, and he entered a plea of no contest in 2002 to a charge of shooting at an occupied vehicle, the American Civil Liberties Union said. He has said he took the fall for a friend that night, and acknowledged he was high and with the wrong crowd.
He spent two years in prison and was deported to Mexico in 2004. He re-entered the U.S. illegally, then in 2010 was pulled over in a traffic stop and sent over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. They reinstated his 2004 removal order.
Barajas’ parents visited him often in Tijuana and now are advocates for deported veterans.
“It’s unjust that the government doesn’t fend for them, doesn’t help them,” she said. “I’m happy with what he does to help them.”
Having her son back, “is as if he was born again,” but this time in the U.S., she said.
Governor Brown removed a major obstacle to citizenship by pardoning him in 2017.
Barajas was eligible to naturalize as a U.S. citizen due to his honorable service, according to a December 2017 petition filed by the ACLU. It called for the U.S. District Court to hold a naturalization hearing for Barajas.
Barajas is the second of the deported veterans pardoned by Gov. Brown to return home, the ACLU said.
Former Marine Marco Chavez, who was deported to Mexico 15 years ago and was pardoned by the governor like Barajas was, won his fight to return to the United States and regain his permanent U.S. residency.
Chavez was in Compton Saturday.
“You deserve it,” Chavez told Barajas. “Welcome back.”
Although Barajas is back in the U.S. now, he will still be advocating for deported veterans. He plans to spend a year traveling back and forth from Tijuana to Compton.
“It wouldn’t seem right to just up and leave,” he said.
In June, he is traveling to the Dominican Republic to help organize deported veterans there.
It’s been non-stop for Barajas, but he has taken the time to appreciate being back in Compton. He noticed there’s a new Starbucks, and lamented that the indoor swap-meet no longer existed.
“It feels good. It looks totally different,” Barajas said. “Compton looks better.”
“As long as they don’t take the Tam’s Burgers,” he said.