Andy de Leon thought he was the only one.

Deported to Mexico, the Vietnam-era Army cook struggled to find a way to live in Tijuana—landing in the sprawling border city after serving time for a drug conviction. At age 65 he lost his home in Madera, his car and his family. It’s been years since he’s seen his 10 grandchildren.

“I think it’s wrong. We risked our lives for Uncle Sam, and then for a little mistake we made in our lives and got in trouble with the police, they deport us right away. They don’t want us,” said de Leon, adding he became addicted to drugs and sold them to support his habit after his mother died and he couldn’t find a job.

De Leon, who notes he was honorably discharged, is not alone. He is one of an estimated several thousand veterans expelled from the United States since 1996, when deportation of immigrants with certain convictions became mandatory, with no judicial discretion. It wasn’t until their deportations, after serving their time in jail or prison, that many of them realized they were not citizens.

Clad in black sweats and a Super Bowl T-shirt, de Leon sits on a metal folding chair in a place that’s become a second home to vets like him: the Deported Veterans Support House.

“They should give us a chance to go back,” he said, his voice loud and raspy. “We are not angels that came down from heaven. We all make mistakes.”

Now state and federal lawmakers are trying to help them. The California Assembly this month approved AB 386, which would direct the state to pay legal fees for certain deported veterans trying to return to the U.S. if they have a California connection—such as having been stationed at a California base, or having children attending school here. Nobody voted no on the Assembly floor, and the bill is expected to clear the state Senate.

Deported U.S. military veterans Andrew De Leon, left, and Alejandro Gomez Cortez, chat at the Deported Veteran's Support House. Photo by David Maung for CALmatters
Deported U.S. military veterans Andy de Leon, left, and Alejandro Gomez Cortez, chat at the Deported Veterans Support House. Photo by David Maung for CALmatters

It’s unknown how much this would cost the state, but the bill states that legal aid would be subject to annual funding. Last week the Legislature sent Gov. Jerry Brown a budget that includes $45 million for the legal defense of immigrants facing deportation. The bill sponsor, San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, is pushing ahead with the legislation because it would explicitly state that deported veterans are eligible for that legal aid.

Immigrants who serve in the U.S. military are automatically eligible for citizenship, but to gain it they must complete the application process. The legal permanent residents— green card holders—say they mistakenly thought they received citizenship when they enlisted and took their military oaths. Others didn’t follow through with the paperwork during active duty.

Many of the veterans at the support house, started by deported former Army paratrooper Hector Barajas-Varela in 2013, have pinned their hopes on the California bill and federal efforts. Otherwise, they don’t expect to return to California until they are dead—when they will be allowed to be buried with military honors in a U.S. cemetery.

If Brown signs the bill it would be the first time any government aid has gone to individuals removed from the country.

“These are people who made a compact with the federal government—they were willing to give their life and fight for their country—and in exchange our military service said ‘you will be granted citizenship.’ And for whatever reason that didn’t happen,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.

“To me, whatever crime they committed is irrelevant because we don’t deport people who commit crimes,” she said, “we deport people who aren’t U.S. citizens.”

Although California is at the forefront of resistance to the Trump administration’s crackdown against undocumented immigrants, the Assemblywoman said her bill’s timing is coincidental. Many of the targeted vets were deported under previous administrations and attention to their plight has been building.

Gonzalez Fletcher said her husband, veteran and former state legislator Nathan Fletcher, had been leading an effort to persuade a Democratic White House to take action. But when Hillary Clinton lost the November election, however, Gonzalez Fletcher said the focus turned to what California could do.

Military identification tags hang on a wall at the Deported Veteran's Support House in Tijuana. Photo by David Maung for CALmatters
Military identification tags hang on a wall at the Deported Veterans Support House. Photo by David Maung for CALmatters

Opposition stems from organizations pushing for more stringent immigration laws, increased deportations and less legal immigration. Mark Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for strict immigration enforcement and limits on legal immigration. His position: Deported vets should not be let back in.

“They had a chance to become citizens on the fast track while in the service, and they chose not to take it, despite the military’s hectoring green-card soldiers to get naturalized,” he said. “They’re grown-ups and need to deal with the consequences of their actions.”

Critics also see this as another move by California to go out of its way to protect immigrants since President Donald Trump took office.

“California does not have a legal defense fund for other veterans who find themselves in legal difficulties,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that advocates for strict immigration enforcement and limited immigration. “The infrastructure is crumbling and schools and hospitals are a mess but they seem to always have money, not just for veterans but for anybody illegally in the country.”

The U.S. military allows legal permanent residents who hold green cards to enlist, and about 5,000 of them do every year. The armed services also take undocumented immigrants if they have certain skills. And during a draft, they will take any able-bodied person, including undocumented immigrants who are required by law to register for service.

Immigration authorities do not track how many veterans the federal government deports each year. But in the past two decades since the immigration laws changed, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates some 3,000 veterans have been deported—many of them leaving behind children and partners.

“All of these folks served their time. They should not be serving a life sentence, and that is what they are serving with deportation,” said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights for the ACLU of California. “They deserve the same second chance any other citizen would have that commits a crime.”

She added that nearly all of the deported veterans the ACLU has worked with through the support house, known as the Bunker, were legal permanent residents who arrived in the U.S. as children and enlisted when they were old enough.

An ACLU report last year interviewed about 240 veterans deported to 34 countries. It states that in many cases “these were minor offenses committed by veterans who succumbed to the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life and paid their debt to society. Had they been naturalized, as they should have been after being honorably discharged, they would not have been forced to settle a second debt—lifetime banishment from the United States.”

The ACLU is working with the members of the Bunker, combing through their cases looking for legal recourse. Veterans may be eligible to expunge their record, reclassify their crime under current laws, appeal their deportation or apply for citizenship or visas that would allow them to return.

Alejandro Gomez Cortez, a deported U.S. military veteran, walks up a stairway at the Deported Veteran's Support House. Photo by David Maung for CALmatters
Alejandro Gomez Cortez, a deported U.S. military veteran, walks up a stairway at the Deported Veterans Support House. Photo by David Maung for CALmatters

At the support house they call The Bunker, the veterans have created a community. It’s a small space, part storefront, part apartment, on a quiet dusty side street about 15 minutes from the border. Draped in American and military flags, the office doubles as founder Barajas-Varela’s bunk. Cots are arranged upstairs for veterans who need a place to sleep after deportation. The house dog, a friendly brindle mutt, is named Boots.

Barajas-Varela is the backbone of the operation—he counsels other vets about their cases and welcomes film and news crews. He’s one of three vets who recently received a pardon from Brown, and he’s anxiously awaiting a federal decision on his citizenship application.

He’s also tuned in to the fate of the California bill.

“When you are deported no one cares about you,” he said. “For this legislation to be introduced is huge.”

Barajas-Varela and his parents arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when he was 7. He grew up in Gardena and Compton and enlisted in the Army at age 17, going on to serve in the 82nd Airborne until his honorable discharge in 2001 after six years of service.

“I wanted to join to get away from my neighborhood, because of the promises of education, citizenship, a career,” Barajas-Varela remembers. “I wanted to be a G.I. Joe and serve my country.” He said he presumed citizenship was automatic and only learned later that he needed to complete paperwork, when he was busy with assignments and jumping out of airplanes.

The year after he left the Army he got in trouble, eventually pleading guilty to discharging a firearm into a vehicle. After nearly two years in jail, he was deported.

Within a few months he was back—starting a family and working in construction until a fender-bender led to police attention and ultimately banishment across the border.

His daughter Lilliana was a preschooler then. Now she’s 11, talks to her dad via Skype and hasn’t seen him in nearly a year.

“I started with a little list of people,” he said about making contact with other vets. “When I first started I didn’t have a plan, except that if you were a deported veteran we said, ‘come and stay here with us.’”

“At the end of the day we are still American veterans, and we should be allowed to live in the country, and if we screw up again then we should go to jail,” Barajas-Varela said. “Some of the men get in trouble because of their military service. Everyone copes differently and they come back to environments that are unhealthy.”

The California bill will only help those who have an option under current laws, including a new one that allows people to apply to reclassify previous convictions. But for many ejected vets, legal defense won’t get them home, at least not until there is a federal change.

Last month, a congressional delegation led by Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas of San Diego visited the Bunker, garnering attention for federal bills that would prevent the deportation of veterans in the first place and give deported veterans access to medical care and the right to re-enter the U.S. to process citizenship papers.

“There’s just not a lot more that a state can do,” said Gonzalez Fletcher. “I’m hopeful we can get similar support in Washington to move on a federal level.”

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Elizabeth Aguilera is an award-winning multimedia journalist who covers health and social services for CalMatters. She joined CalMatters in 2016 from Southern California Public Radio/KPCC 89.3 where she...