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These Deported Vets Say Rescuing Migrants Is Their Duty

By John Stanton

TIJUANA — Located just 40 yards from the San Ysidro border crossing where each day the United States deports hundreds of undocumented people, the Unified United States Deported Veterans Resource Center has become a critical life-line to scores of military veterans who have found themselves unceremoniously ejected from the country they once served.

Every afternoon for the last two years, the Center’s founder Hector Lopez and co-director Robert Vivar man the aging desk in the center’s cramped office on José María Larroque, where they help both newly deported veterans and the hundreds of vets who now live in and around Tijuana. There’s plenty of work to do for a much larger staff, let alone the skeleton crew of volunteers who work here.

But for much of the last year, the Center and the veterans it serves have responded to the call of duty once again, throwing time and resources into helping thousands of migrants stranded in this dangerous border city as a result of the Trump administration’s efforts to choke off the asylum process.

“This is our mission now,” said Lopez, a former Army reservist who was deported in 2016. “For me, I’m an American, and I figured it was my duty.”

Lopez was born in Michoacan, and when he was three years old his family moved to Madera, California, where his mother opened two bars. According to Lopez, his mother made a good living, and by the time he graduated from high school, he was happily working alongside her. Still, “when it was time to join the military, when everyone was graduating high school… I wasn’t born there, but you know what I was living there, so I figured it was my duty. It was my duty as an American to serve my country,” Lopez said.

So, in 1982 he signed up with the national guard, where he spent six years as part of a transportation unit in the Army. Afterwards, he remained in California, married, and began raising a family. He began using marijuana to combat chronic headaches that had begun shortly after his training, and in 1996 he was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute. In 1999, after a protracted, costly legal fight, he was deported to Tijuana.

Finding himself in an unfamiliar country and a dangerous city, he quickly decided to cross back into the U.S., and within hours was back across the border in the country he’d called home for most of his life.

But following a second marijuana arrest in 2004, he was once again deported. Facing significant jail time if he were caught illegally entering the U.S. again, Lopez made the difficult decision to settle in Tijuana and try to make a life for himself. He quickly realized he wasn’t alone: there were scores of other men living here who’d served in the U.S. military for years, only to end up deported.

Because the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency doesn’t keep accurate statistics, it’s impossible to know how many veterans have been deported. But a 2016 study by the ACLU found that at least 239 foreign-born veterans, most of whom had spent nearly their entire lives in the U.S., had been deported to Mexico, El Salvador, Belize and other countries.

Deportation is a disorienting and terrifying process, particularly for long-term residents of the U.S.. Many speak little or no Spanish and, like in the U.S., without proper work papers, it can be nearly impossible to find legal work in Mexico. And because they can’t cross into the U.S., it also cuts them off from most Department of Veterans Affairs medical benefits, which can be particularly important for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other service-related illnesses and disabilities.

As their numbers grew, veterans in Tijuana began to organize themselves, with Barajas opening a shelter known as “The Bunker” while Lopez founded Banished Veterans, which in 2017 would become the Resource Center, thanks to funding from Veterans for Peace, an anti-war and veterans rights group in the U.S..

Both groups provide a host of services to veterans in Tijuana, ranging from help obtaining Mexican identification and work papers, housing, food, and medical care. They also help veterans navigate the V.A.’s dizzying bureaucracy to obtain their pensions and the few benefits they have access to as well as help in filing appeals of their deportations. And, perhaps most importantly for the veterans, they act as a support network.

As part of that, according to Vivar, the Resource Center works with its members to serve the community they now find themselves in. “You’ve got to find something to fill that void that’s been put in your heart from being separated from the country you grew up in, from your family and your loved ones. And when you see that child, and you help that child, it’s like you’re helping your own grandkids,” he explained.

So when a caravan of thousands of Central American asylum seekers ended up in Tijuana last November after the administration began limiting how many people could apply for asylum each day, the deported veterans community quickly swung into action. They delivered thousands of sandwiches, burritos, spaghetti dinners and other meals, personal hygiene kits, and other supplies to an emergency shelter set up at El Barretal, an old concert venue on the city’s outskirts.

After El Barretal was closed, the Resource Center began working with Gustavo and Zaida Banda, the pastors of the Templo Embajadores de Jesus church. The Bandas had been providing housing for hundreds of Haitian refugees since a huge group had come to Tijuana in 2016, and with established shelters in Tijuana quickly filling up, they decided to open their doors to any asylum seekers who found themselves stranded in the city.

Because of the Center’s proximity to the border crossing, Vivar and Lopez are often some of the first friendly faces migrants see after being returned to Mexico by the U.S. government. “We try to channel them to the different shelters that are available, like Templo Embajadores, and we try to get them into Al Otro Lado [an immigrant rights organization that provides legal assistance] for the immigration orientation for the asylum process,” Vivar said.

Vivar, who fought his own deportation while in detention and became familiar with legal remedies like the Convention Against Torture, has also begun conducting basic legal boot camps at shelters. “I have a pretty good feel for what the process is like and what they’re going to go through, so I thought it would be very convenient for me whenever possible to give them a workshop,” he said.

On a recent afternoon this month, Lopez pulled his silver, late model Ford F150 into the driveway of the Templo Embajadores de Jesus church. Along with his wife Lupita and Vivar, Lopez had come to deliver a load of supplies to the Bandas, and the truck’s back was packed tight with black trash bags filled with clothes, shoes, bedding, and toys. 

Inside the church were several hundred Central American refugees, many of whom were taken to a nearby park for a picnic by Pastor Gustavo and a few volunteers, in an effort to give them at least a moment of normalcy.

While that group was out, 30 or so more new migrants arrived, part of a group of 150 asylum seekers the United States deported into Mexico as part of the Trump administration’s controversial new “Migrant Protection Protocols” program (MPP), which forces refugees to wait in Mexico to apply for asylum.

As they began unloading the truck, Pastor Zaida opened the church door, smiling warmly at Vivar and waving him into the church’s cavernous interior. In the past, Banda never kept the door locked, but it’s no longer safe to do so, even for a house of God that sits at the end of a lonely dirt road deep within Canyon El Alacran — Scorpion Canyon. With so many women and children living here now, the Bandas have had to worry about cartel men coming to coax them out with false promises of being crossed into the United States, only to be kidnapped and their families extorted for what little money they may have.

Banda motioned to a spot in the middle of the church floor for Vivar to put the heavy bags of donations veterans had collected over the last several days. 

Silently, the new arrivals began to move forward from darkest edges of church, their feet shuffling in shoes still missing the laces taken from them 17 days before while in U.S. Border Patrol custody.

Mothers and fathers quickly begin sifting through the clothes for themselves and their children. According to the adults, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) took their extra clothes and other possessions when they were picked up somewhere along the east Texas border. They haven’t changed or showered since then, though they were fed.

Later, they would tell Banda and Vivar that they’d been held in a facility in CBP’s Rio Grande Sector, one of the heaviest trafficked parts of the border. The day before CBP officers had given them papers, telling that if they signed the documents, they’d be flown to San Diego, California, where they would be released to family in the United States.

But the papers, they found out later, were actually deportation documents, courtesy of MPP. Although human rights groups are challenging the program, CBP has so far deported thousands of asylum seekers to Tijuana, Juarez, and other dangerous cities. According to their documents, most of the migrants were scheduled to have their cases heard in January of next year, nearly six months after arriving here with no clothes, no money, no way to work, and no place to go.

A spokesman for the CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Lopez and Vivar, the new MPP policy has made the already bad situation for migrants in Tijuana even worse, and they worry it could result in a true humanitarian crisis. Neither the city nor the Mexican federal government has ever invested enough in shelters and other services for migrants and deportees, which has resulted in thousands of people living in abandoned buildings, heroin shooting galleries and El Bordo, the massive sewage ditch that runs along the border.

Vivar and Lopez see the policy as a cruel prod to try and force refugees to give up on asylum. “It’s part of the hate and the racism that President Trump and his cabinet are displaying… without any regard for human life,” Vivar said flatly. And while some asylum seekers returned under MPP have begun returning to their home countries rather than risk their lives staying in Tijuana, huge numbers remain.

With hundreds of veterans living in and around Tijuana and in need of help, it’s a full-time job, especially for an organization with limited resources. And it would be understandable for Lopez and his men to remain focused on the task at hand—especially since inserting themselves into the fight over Trump’s hardline curbs on immigration could undermine their efforts in Congress.

But Lopez dismissed that idea out of hand. “Are we going to stand idly by and watch people suffer, or are we going to help in any way we can? What do we do, just sit here and let this injustice play out, or do we help in whatever way we can,” he said. “Here, now, we see it as our duty to help in any way we can. And there’s so much need here.”

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