For Daniel Torres, Memorial Day is marked with pride in his service and memories of the people he's known who have died in combat.
"I was a volunteer for Afghanistan and before I was deployed, it came to light that I was undocumented. I was unable to deploy," he says. "The guy that replaced me, his name was Cpl. Christopher Boyd. He took my spot on the Afghanistan deployment and he was killed in 2010."
"It's very personal for me because I feel that guy took my spot. He took my ticket," says Torres. "I used to say, I might not be an American citizen, but I'm still a Marine. I always had that pride in being a Marine and celebrating those memorial services in remembrance of my brothers."
Torres was brought to the US as a child, undocumented. When he turned 18, he wanted to do something for his country. He served first in Iraq and was about to be sent to Afghanistan. That's when the military discovered he wasn't actually a citizen, that he used a fake birth certificate to enlist.
He received an honorable discharge because of his excellent military record. But unable to find work because of his undocumented status, he traveled to France to try to join the Foreign Legion. Torres says he was rejected because of the hearing loss he suffered in Iraq, and was deported. However, instead of being sent home to the US, he was sent to Mexico, which he hadn't seen since he was child.
Five years later, Torres, now 30, can go home. He was interviewed and took the oath to become a US citizen on April 21 in San Diego. He benefited from a part of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that makes people who have served in the military during times of hostility eligible for citizenship. The provision allows for regular criteria for citizenship, in this case lawful permanent residence, to be waived.
"It was strange because it happened that same day and it was really fast," says Torres. "I wasn't really expecting it to be that fast. It was a bit surreal."
You don't have to be a citizen to enlist in the military, just a lawful permanent resident. While people who have served in the US military are eligible for expedited US citizenship — more than 100,000 servicemembers have been naturalized since 2002 — the process had not yet been used for anyone who has been deported.
Torres says a place called The Bunker, a Tijuana support house for deported US military veterans, helped him navigate the complex immigration system and gain citizenship. The Bunker was founded by Hector Barajas, who himself served in the US Army and was deported in 2004.
Though his circumstances are different — he served as a US army paratrooper and was deported after he plead guilty to discharging a firearm — Barajas, too, hopes he can be granted citizenship. He has an appointment with US officials at the border this week.
The Bunker, the Tijuana support house, has also inspired an effort in Congress to assist veterans facing deportation, and allow those already deported to come back.
The bill, ‘Restoring Respect for Immigrant Service in Uniform,’ is co-sponsored by US Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona’s 7th District.
“I wrote the bill to do two things," Gallego says. "One is to stop further deportation of veterans, because right now there’s no protection for veterans should they commit any type of crime. And, two, it would ask Homeland Security or whatever relevant department sets up a process so we can start bringing these veterans home.”
Gallego himself is a Marine veteran of Iraq.
“We just can’t be doing this to people who’ve been willing to sacrifice their lives for this country,” he says. “Unfortunately, many of them are being deported because of service-related issues. People that have PTSD and they’re self-medicating themselves or hurting themselves and then find themselves involved with the law — and the next thing you know they’re getting kicked out of this country.”
“The only right they get to keep is the right to get buried in US cemeteries,” says Gallego, “and that’s the only time they’re allowed back into the United States. It’s just unfathomable that we could do this to any veteran.”
Gallego says it’s like punishing someone twice if, after serving time for an offense, they are then deported. “We should give them the chance to basically repair themselves, rehabilitate themselves and integrate back into society.”
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