When Marco Chavez Medina walked across the border at San Ysidro on Thursday, he carried with him the hopes of hundreds of U.S. military veterans who have been deported following their years of service.
Before he walked into the port of entry, several deported veterans who live in Tijuana shook his hand, wished him well and then erupted into cheers.
Chavez, 45, is the first deported military veteran to have his green card reinstated after a governor pardoned the conviction that caused him to lose it.
For the first time in 15 years, Chavez will be home for Christmas.
“I was in disbelief,” Chavez said after emerging from an interview with border officials. “I believe it now.”
Though he said he was nervous and couldn’t sleep the night before, Chavez didn’t show it. He stood calmly with his hands folded behind his back and his face stoic, the way one might expect from a man who served four years in the Marine Corps. He smiled mostly with the crinkles of his eyes.
Chavez first came to the U.S. in 1973 when he was about six months old. He was an unauthorized immigrant until he received a green card in 1989 through the Reagan administration’s amnesty program.
In the late 90s, Chavez was convicted of animal cruelty and served 10 months of a two-year sentence. An immigration judge revoked his green card a few years later. The situation involved a dog in a mechanic shop, Chavez said, and he maintains that the jury made a mistake in convicting him, that he is innocent.
An immigration judge reinstated his green card at the end of November after Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him earlier this year. He had less than a month to mentally prepare to come back.
It’s been 15 years — a third of his life — since he’s been to his parents’ home in Los Angeles, where he’s now heading to begin a new life.
“I’m nervous about restarting my life again in the U.S.,” he said. “I’ve been away for quite a bit, so I’ve got to start somewhere. I figure I did it in Tijuana, so I can do it in the U.S.”
He hopes to find work quickly, perhaps in construction or maintenance and repair. He dreams of having a place of his own that is big enough for his sons to visit when they want.
When he was deported, his sons were children, the oldest about six. Now, they’ve grown into young men, and he barely knows them.
“I’m trying to establish a relationship with them,” Chavez said. “I’m pretty sure they’re resentful for me not being there.”
He carried two Christmas bags filled with gifts for his grandchildren.
It’s also been 15 years since he could buy himself a good pastrami sandwich, something he craved in his time away. He asked his parents to bring him one when they came to visit him in Tijuana every so often.
His father, Antonio Chavez, came on Thursday to pick him up in San Ysidro.
Former state assemblyman Nathan Fletcher and ACLU executive director Norma Chávez-Peterson, who are part of a coalition to help deported military veterans return to the U.S., welcomed Chavez with hugs when he reached U.S. soil.
“This is really great — second to birth of kids and marriage — really great to work so hard and know it mattered,” Fletcher said.
Chavez is one of three deported veterans pardoned by California’s governor this year thanks to the persuasion of Fletcher and his team.
Fletcher hopes the others might be permitted to cross soon.
“On behalf of all who serve, for so many of us, these are our brothers,” Fletcher said. “None of us can truly be at peace until everyone comes home.”
Hector Barajas, one of the men waiting to find out if his pardon will also help him return, beamed with excitement as he escorted Chavez to the border.
“Out of the millions of people getting deported, how often do you hear of people going home?” Barajas said.
The ACLU has documented at least 239 cases of deported veterans living in 34 countries.
While people in active military service are eligible to become citizens immediately instead of waiting the years required of other immigrants, they still have to go through the process.
Some have argued that if veterans don’t make the effort to naturalize, that they should be deportable if they commit certain crimes. They believe that green cards should be conditional to a person’s behavior regardless of a person’s military service.
Many deported veterans have said that they thought that they were automatically citizens as part of their service because of what they were told during recruitment.
“No veteran gets a free pass,” Fletcher said. “Every veteran should be held accountable for any mistake that they make, and all of these veterans were. For almost all veterans, after you pay your debt to society, a grateful nation offers you a path to redemption and reentry. For these veterans, after they pay their debt to society, we offer a path to deportation.”
He is pushing Congress to prevent more deportations of veterans and bring back those already removed.
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