Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Big Pac-Man still tucks his trousers into his high black jump boots. He learned to do this at jump school in the Army. He posts photos of jumps on Facebook—high up, looking down on paratroopers as they drop, Fort Bragg tiny below like a model-railroad landscape. His knees and back still ache from all the hard landings. But he walks through the pain in a brisk march. He has a loud laugh—you can hear him coming before he arrives.
On the day we meet with him, he’s driving his white beater car, the seats occupied by his soldiers. They’re laughing and shouting over the radio. They could be warlords in an insurgency or narcos swarming out of Tijuana, looking for targets. Big men. Shaved heads. Music blaring in Spanish. Their car comes in off the cracked street and rattles to a stop in the apartment courtyard. The communal chihuahua runs for its life as the soldiers burst out of the vehicle. “I’m hungry!” Big Pac-Man shouts, which is why they call him that: He’s always eating.
It is not uncommon to find him in his dress uniform. He wears his beret and sometimes stands at attention at the U.S. border fence, watching lines of cars snake into San Diego. It’s a kind of sentry duty. Tourists and businesspeople avoid eye contact, but he stands firm before them. His colleagues often join him, and they form an honor guard, squared away as if awaiting inspection. Their signs say Banished Veterans. Hector Barajas, of the 82nd Airborne. Deported.
Barajas is a member of a shadow army whose numbers are kept obscure by the U.S. government. He estimates that 3,700 veterans of the U.S. military are exiled in Mexico alone. It is hard to prove; even requests under the Freedom of Information Act yield scant data to prove or disprove his theory.
He and his colleagues have created a tiny, unofficial VA center in Barajas’s apartment: the Deported Veterans Support House. Here, between his social-media activism, impromptu health care, counseling and charity work, Barajas attends to his calculations and his restless hunt to discover others like himself.
“From my understanding,” Barajas says, “we have had more than 10 veterans in each detention center. There are about 250 centers in the United States. Let’s say 16 years of deportations since 1996. Ten times 250 equals 2,500. Twenty-five hundred times 16 equals 40,000. I think you can get better stats than I can.”
But as we will see, that is not entirely true.
Most Americans have no idea Mexico’s border cities house a cadre of banished warriors who believed their service in the U.S. armed forces would win them access to American citizenship. Barajas and his partners have discovered fellow deported soldiers in 19 countries besides Mexico—Jamaica, Italy, Canada, Guyana, Peru, Trinidad, the U.K. and Bosnia among them. The deportees are not just Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; Korea and Vietnam vets live in dirty rooms all over Tijuana.
Fabián Rebolledo is Barajas’s partner in the Deported Veterans Support House. He can’t eat as much as Barajas, so they call him Little Pac-Man. But who can eat as much as Big Pac-Man? The vets scoff at the notion. Rebolledo was promised citizenship for enlisting, but after returning from active duty in Kosovo, he was deported.
“They taught me it was easy to kill people,” he says. “Then they threw me away.”
The Pac-Men’s small VA operation is in Rosarito, Tijuana’s sister city to the southwest. Twenty miles north, across the border, the American coastal neighborhoods are billion-dollar enclaves. Here, not so much. The glory days of MTV Spring Break and college students cavorting in sombreros are gone. Now bodies and body parts are regularly found throughout the city—a woman’s tattooed torso zipped up in a black suitcase left on the beach, an arm in the weeds by the highway.
The Deported Veterans Support House is situated in Barajas’s cramped two-bedroom apartment in a surreal compound. Painted bright colors, it is populated by expat gringos in various stages of distress. Radios compete for most obnoxious squall. A pregnant-looking American dude with unbuttoned shorts drags a heavily pregnant Mexican woman wearing yellow rubber gloves onto his lap and kneads her ass. An addled evangelist barks, “You ever been shot in the mouth? I have!” He displays blown-out teeth. Then he tries to make the perfectly normal leg of a visitor grow an inch through the power of Jesus. Big Pac-Man sends him scuttling away. “Learn some manners,” he says as he fires up the computers.
“I like Mexico and all,” he says. “But I hate being in this country. I want to go home. I’d gladly go to prison for five years if the U.S. would finally let me be a citizen and raise my daughter.”
Barajas works the machines, sending messages to a growing army of contacts and followers. He is a tireless Facebook presence. Soldiers find him and seek his help. The Pac-Men have people around them all the time. It is unclear who they are or what they want. On this day a young man with the kind of scary neck tattoos that make suburbanites shy away sits in a corner. He could be a soldier.
“Were you in the crazy life in Los Angeles?” he is asked.
“Were you a bad boy?”
“If we were in East L.A., would we be talking?”
He smiles. Hangs his head. Chuckles.
Barajas says, “In my case, I didn’t shoot anybody. Nothing like that. Okay, I may have shot a car.”
They burst out laughing. And Rebolledo stares at his hands. Their dress uniforms hang on the wall, carefully pressed.
For Big Pac-Man, it started with partying. He was a fiery kid, a quick-fisted social butterfly from a neighborhood ruled by gang law. Barajas popped in and out of high school, finally enlisting and reenlisting in the Army. He started to straighten out, snaring a 1997 certificate of achievement for providing “outstanding medical support to the 82nd Signal Battalion during immunization day.” By 1998 there was a Good Conduct Medal for “exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity in active federal service” and by 1999 the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service to Charlie Company, 307th Forward Support Battalion. It said his “outstanding performance reflects great credit upon himself.” Barajas was honorably discharged.
But home in Compton he started hanging with old friends. One night the homeys thought they were being followed. They weren’t: They were high, strung out and paranoid. Shots were fired. Barajas pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm at a vehicle and served three years in prison. Then he was deported.
Big Pac-Man tried to sneak home, but he got caught. Today he has pretty much given up on the idea of sneaking back to Los Angeles. Instead, from Rosarito he is assembling his own deportee army.
These former soldiers live in a world of ironies. They are banished from the United States as a result of their crimes and infractions, sometimes related to PTSD, sometimes to outright cons and deceptions by recruiters. Many wrestle with drugs and addiction. They readily acknowledge they are not saints. But their problems could have been handled with treatment and therapy at real VA hospitals if they’d been U.S. citizens. And on the day they die, they are eligible for burial in the U.S. with full military honors. They were honorably discharged, after all.
Barajas says, “We’re only good enough to be Americans when we’re dead.”
Although these banished veterans have been rendered officially invisible, they have transformed themselves into unlikely media stars. Televisa interviews them. Activists seek them out. Photographers pose them with flags. A steady stream of reporters and now filmmakers flows out to the beach to study them and post their story. The soldiers spend a lot of time trying to explain. Aggravated-felony charges got many of them tossed out of the country and are at the heart of their struggle; the key word that turns them into pariahs is felony.
When Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, the American immigration system received a major face-lift. The 200-page bill effectively overhauled existing law. It became a lot easier to be deported.
Not only did the Border Patrol gain more than 10,000 new employees, but funding for Immigration and Naturalization Service investigations increased to unprecedented levels. They needed something to investigate, and these new investigations needed new metrics to put check marks in the proper columns. Hence, stricter penalties for infractions were imposed. To keep the conviction flow healthy, the definition of what constituted an infraction broadened. For example, the act created a 10-year banishment for any “illegal” immigrant caught living in the U.S. for more than a year. And there came a new definition of the term aggravated felony. The better to catch you with, homeboy.
Certain misdemeanors became felonies overnight. Shoplifting while Mexican became a felony. Driving under the influence was now a potential felony. And felonies were deportable offenses. But the genius of it, the draconian stratagem of the deporters, was to make these hardcore penalties retroactive. So soldiers who had already served time for their infractions—even decades earlier—were immediately subject to deportation. And the system revved up its Hoover and started vacuuming them out of their houses. Immigration detainees, according to the system, have no right to counsel.
At the same time, immigration judges were stripped of the one avenue for mercy left open to them: Their judicial discretion was denied.
Green cards didn’t matter, time served didn’t matter, legal counsel didn’t matter. An aggravated felony conviction—even after the fact—meant permanent mandatory banishment. President Barack Obama and his administration would not comment.
Obama has deported more people than any other president in American history. His administration—until its recent embrace of border reform and “pathway to citizenship” (you can hear the rustling sound of a vast Latino voting bloc coming of age beyond the White House fence)—maintained strict quotas for the Department of Homeland Security, keeping the Tea Party happy. Obama’s target has been 400,000 humans a year.
Since 2008 the U.S. has deported almost 2 million people. Last year it set an all-time record: 409,849 humans through the goal posts. Fifty-five percent of them had been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies. That would leave more than 180,000 who are not—even retroactively—guilty of such infractions.
Interestingly, no government agency adrift in that vast trinomial soup of enforcement claims to know how many U.S. veterans are among these numbers.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not currently track how many individuals removed from the United States are military veterans,” says spokesperson Lori Haley.
Hold up now: The Center for Naval Analyses states that 70,000 immigrants enlisted between 1998 and 2008. The Department of Homeland Security posted numbers on its website: 83,532 immigrants naturalized through military service in the past decade—and hundreds of lucky bastards won citizenship posthumously. It’s hard to believe no bean counter knows how many of these soldiers were kicked out of the country. President George W. Bush signed 2004’s National Defense Authorization Act, which made it possible for people to become American citizens on soil outside the United States. That means you could become a U.S. citizen in the middle of a battle—say, in Baghdad, where 161 immigrant soldiers were naturalized on a single day in 2007.
The head spins. Apparently Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is feeling a bit dizzy herself: Writing of citizenship services held for 24 enlistees in 2010, she said “they come to America because of their commitment to our ideals and their belief in the American dream. Many of them risk their lives for their country even before they officially become citizens.”
But before the moment they became citizens, they might have committed a misdemeanor that magically became a felony, which means they can be thrown out with their medals.
Immigration officials claim military service is taken into consideration during deportation proceedings, as mandated by a highly publicized June 2011 document known as the Morton Memo. In it, ICE director John Morton outlined factors for considering mercy in deportation cases.
One factor, wrote Morton, is “whether the person, or the person’s immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military, reserves or National Guard, with particular consideration given to those who served in combat.” It gets better: “certain classes of individuals” deserve “particular care.” Who dat? “Veterans of the U.S. armed forces.”
Recap: We know how many of them exist, but we don’t know how many of them exist. We do, however, know what each of these unknown soldiers did and when they did it and have prosecuted them individually, though we again do not know who they are. We honor their military service to this country and offer them full honors in a U.S. military cemetery upon their deaths, though we deported them for being an unwanted burden to this country. And maybe they could become citizens right there in Tijuana if the U.S. invaded.
No wonder Big Pac-Man feels confused.
Big Pac-Man may be a big badass felon, but he became famous for crying. When reporters from Univision came to visit, they were so taken with the deported veterans that a three-part special report resulted. They followed Barajas around: attending church, talking to other vets, manning the computer workstations with Little Pac-Man.
And they taped him being a dad, Skyping with his seven-year-old daughter, Liliana, in California.
“Chicky-boo,” he called into the screen. He lit up with delight as the little girl’s face appeared. “Hey! Hi, Mama!”
“Hi,” Lily replied. She sounded muffled.
The pair giggled and started talking. Lily’s image was purplish. The slow internet connection made the conversation freeze and hop.
“It’s not enough,” Barajas said under his breath. “I can’t hold her.”
The Univision reporter, Santiago Lucero, next visited Barajas’s mom, Margarita, in the U.S. He taped a greeting from her to Barajas with an iPhone. Later, in Mexico, while Univision’s cameras rolled, Lucero played it for him. Margarita was tearful. She told Big Pac-Man she loved him, that she wished he could return soon. That she prayed for him.
Barajas sucked in a breath and looked away. His forehead crumpled under his beret. A tear ran down his cheek.
“Word of a mother, broken by her son’s deportation,” Lucero intoned in Spanish.
The camera cut away, leaving Big Pac-Man gasping for composure.
On any given day, those staying at the Deported Veterans Support House might be fielding phone calls, searching Tijuana streets for homeless vets, Facebooking maniacally or perhaps painting their names and a simple three-foot-high, three-character message—SOS—on the wall dividing Tijuana from San Diego. Really. No one who visits Tijuana’s most western edge, where the city meets the sea and Mexican beachgoers suck down mangos and gamy fish tacos, can miss the plea for help. Seen by itself, with no veterans present, the sign might seem baffling. Next to it, they painted a giant upside-down American flag: the soldier’s sign of distress.
It’s easy to get sucked in by Big Pac-Man’s laugh. He’s likable, charismatic, candid to a fault. At times you want to say, “Hector, stop it. Don’t tell me that. Too much, Hector.” Like the time he fell off the wagon in the support house earlier this year, after five long months of sobriety. “I like to get high,” he says. “I know I’m an addict. I know the bad outweighs the good.”
“Just sometimes I go, ‘Fuck it.’
”Big Pac-Man launches into the story. Yet another reporter was banging on the door of the support house, waiting to ping the vets with questions. Rebolledo didn’t know what to do. Maybe the reporter would just leave. Barajas had been up for days; when he heard the front door, he dived into the musty bathroom. Tweaking and terrified, he’d put up barricades. Rebolledo pretended no one was in the house and stayed silent.
Then a neighbor let the damn reporter in.
“Aw, man, it was so bad,” Barajas says. He rubs his hands over his head. “I go about a week and a half, no sleep, nothing. I get weird. Something like that could hurt the cause, the veterans. It could discredit me.”
But it doesn’t stop him from talking, from revealing. Big Pac-Man exposes himself. He lays it all out. You can like him or not, though it’s hard not to. He sparkles. And what’s clearer than anything is the fact that he’s trying as hard as he possibly can, and he wants people to know he’s trying.
He has broken ground. No one else has been able to organize the vets. It’s sort of like wading into the ocean and catching jellyfish by hand. Sometimes there are patches, two or three new deportees snared, a few more unofficial “intake” forms filled out. But for long stretches no new names appear. Lately it’s been a slow trickle.
Virtual vet hunting is almost a full-time job. Barajas and Rebolledo stalk around online, monitoring the news and online petitions and the go-to mainstay, Facebook. Then there are real-life passes through homeless territory, certain Tijuana streets lined with gutters of garbage and girls. High or sober, Big Pac-Man continually pulses with frenetic energy.
Barajas taught himself HTML so he could run the Banished Veterans website. His baby mama, whom he desperately wants back, now pays the domain renewal fees. The rudimentary lists of deported vets taped up in the apartment crawled off the walls and into Google Docs. With help from a MagicJack, the phone calls started: with lawyers (pro bono, immigration, criminal defense), congressional aides (anyone who answers), journalists and missionaries. Evangelist Tony Lamson, a former marine, brought food and faith, words of motivation to stay straight. The soldiers try.
Sometimes things get messy. Drama. Petty fights break out, over girls or slights or respect. Every day is a new set of challenges. The electricity shuts off. There’s no food. Someone gets drunk, crashes a car and runs away from the scene. Someone sleeps with a reporter. Old childhood friends from L.A., gangbangers, show up with goodies to inject or sniff. The deportee army is one band in a sea of borderland deportees flooding Tijuana. Sometimes Barajas’s perceived power is challenged in creative ways.
But whatever the reason—candor, relatable fuck-ups, nonstop leave-no-man-behind banter, genuine affability—Big Pac-Man continues as the unofficial leader of the Banished Veterans. And he’s not focused on deportees alone. He also tries to catch his “brothers in arms” before their boots hit foreign ground.
Enlisting wasn’t really Ruben Azevedo’s idea. It was his buddy’s. After the towers fell on September 11, they felt patriotic. So they became marines.
Azevedo ended up loving the service, even after 14 brutal months in Iraq through 2004 and 2005, after Falluja and after Najaf. “I loved being in,” Azevedo says. If it were up to him, he’d still be a marine. But it’s not. Shortly after returning from Iraq, he broke his back in a car crash. He was subsequently honorably discharged. It was 2006.
“After I got back from Iraq,” says Azevedo, “I was pretty messed up in the head.” One night a few summers later, in 2008, police stopped the car he was riding in. He recounts the story. His friend, who was driving, was charged with driving under the influence. During the arrest, Azevedo yelled at the officers and ended up with his own charge: disorderly conduct. It didn’t seem to be too big a deal.
But a few months later, in August, a team of ICE agents surrounded his house. “They were in SWAT vehicles,” Azevedo says. They had come to deport him.
The marine was baffled. When the Azevedo family emigrated from Portugal in the 1980s, they’d settled first in California and then in the small rural community of Twin Falls, Idaho. They’ve lived there ever since. It’s classic small-town America, population 25,000, the land of big trucks, country music and camping.
In middle school Azevedo met Idaho native Brittnie Bjornn. They fell in love and later married. The junior high school sweethearts have been together for 18 years, more than half Azevedo’s life. He’s 30.
Azevedo tried to do the right thing. He turned himself in. Surely, he thought, there was some mistake. He was held for a day, he says, in “a little cubicle with a bunch of Hispanic people.” Everyone else spoke Spanish. He doesn’t. ICE officials scoffed, he says, when he told them he was a U.S. marine and Iraq combat vet.
He used his phone call to contact Brittnie, who brought in the documents to prove it. Before he was released, Azevedo says, he had to sign various court papers.
It was confusing because he’d applied for citizenship before but had never heard back from the U.S. government. He hadn’t expected any problems, given his combat service to the country, his American wife and the fact he’d lived in the U.S. since he was a baby.
When he was in Iraq, he and “a bunch of other guys” even took a course offered by the military that walked service members through the naturalization process and helped them file their paperwork. The documents were supposed to go to immigration processing centers specially designated for military applicants. Azevedo says neither he nor any of the others heard back.
After the surprise ICE detainment, he applied again. He hasn’t heard anything. At the same time, Azevedo hasn’t hired a lawyer, shrugging off the idea. Would they really pluck him from Idaho and send him to Portugal?
“If they want to deport me, they can sure as heck try,” he says. He’s pragmatic and down-to-earth, but it’s also clear he thinks the whole deportation-proceedings mess is silly. “I’d like to see ’em try.”
When Big Pac-Man found Azevedo on Facebook shortly after the incident, he tried to warn him. “He doesn’t get it yet,” Barajas says. “These guys, ICE, are serious. They don’t care.”
He throws up his hands. “I can only do so much. These guys! If they don’t want to listen, well, you can lead a horse to water….”
For all the younger combat vets, there are also old ones. Hector Manuel Barrios is almost 70. Black-and-white snapshots from Vietnam show Barrios as a strapping young man of 24, trim and well muscled. One is a portrait of him slyly confident in a combat helmet. Then he’s shirtless, sitting outside what might be barracks. In another, Barrios sits on a bench with three other soldiers, clutching a German shepherd puppy. Three of the four look unsure, but Barrios, one hand resting lightly across the dog’s heart, is grinning for the camera.
Barrios’s mustache is small and neat. So is the one-room apartment in Tijuana’s seamy Zona Norte, where he now lives. His shoes are tucked carefully beneath his bed, a twin mattress sagging on a metal frame. A single bare bulb, dangling from an extension cord, reveals peeling walls. A tattered postcard taped to the door frame bears the emblem of the 1st Air Cavalry, a bright yellow shield inlaid with a horse’s head. In the corner of the room is a small TV. Its picture shimmies and jumps.
It’s hard for Barrios to feed himself. On one of his ID documents, the small box for U.S. citizen is checked off with two faded Xs, stamped in old typewriter ink. On others he’s listed as a legal permanent resident. He makes a few dollars a week hunched and hobbling around a small taco stand. In 2001 he was deported after an arrest at the U.S. border for transporting marijuana in a car. Now he’s a heroin addict. It’s hard for him to talk about Vietnam: His gravelly voice ebbs and flows and cracks.
Sometimes Big Pac-Man visits. “He’s not only my tocayo”—Spanish for “namesake”—“he’s my brother in arms,” Barajas says. Sometimes he tears up, gets emotional. “It’s the ultimate betrayal. If he died in combat, he would have been an American hero.”
Barajas throws an arm around the elderly man’s frail shoulders, giving a hearty squeeze. Barrios grunts. Each time they’re together, Big Pac-Man insists on a cell phone picture. The Hectors huddle together on the weary bed. More fodder for the social-media networks. Each time, for photos Barrios breaks into a habitual grin. It transforms him. The old man is instantly, suddenly, temporarily that same guy in the photos from Vietnam: brave, strong, limbs unencumbered, spine strong despite everything. His eyes are cheerful and gleaming.
When Big Pac-Man first arrived in Tijuana, he was scrambling for a job. No big shock: The entire city is scrambling—it’s the definition of Tijuana. He joined the great human tide, seeking something meaningful to do. He found it in an old-folks’ home, where he tended to faltering seniors in their last days. One can imagine what the conditions in a Tijuana retirement hospital might be. Big Pac-Man engaged his military discipline and walked into the smell and sorrow every day. There he found he had a real talent for helping others.
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.