Military Veterans Having To Hide In The Country They Served


(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TASK AND PURPOSE)

Unwanted: An Army Veteran Hiding In The Country He Served
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A disabled Army veteran and illegal immigrant living in hiding in the United States shares his story.

David is sore most days. It’s his back and his hands, mostly, but to be honest, it’s all the joints. He’s deaf in one ear, blind in one eye, and walks with a cane. He’s 67 and has arthritis most everywhere you can have it. But there’s some pain that age doesn’t inflict. Terrible thoughts, the stuff of bad dreams. For him they’re memories, and all too real.

David, who served stateside in the Army during the Vietnam War, is clean these days. He kicked his heroin habit and stopped boozing years ago. He stays away from painkillers too, for a different reason: They don’t play nice with his dialysis treatment. He goes to a Department of Veteran Affairs hospital every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — three hours each time — and he can’t sleep when the needle is in him. It’s thick as a nail and sends shooting pain through his arm when he changes position. There’s a television in the room, but the volume is usually turned way down, so David just sits there in a recliner and tries not to move too much. It leaves him exhausted, sore, and hungry, and he doesn’t like to drive after he gets treatment. He rarely drives anyway.

David dialysis

“I’m scared to,” he says.

He could get pulled over, and then the cop might run a background check. David lives in Los Angeles, his home for half a century. He didn’t used to be afraid to go out on the road. Though he entered the country legally with his family in 1967, David — who asked not be identified by his real name — is now considered an illegal immigrant.

These days, he spends most of his time inside, watching television, keeping up with the news and cooking. Occasionally he cleans, but he has trouble getting around, so he doesn’t do it often. It’s not fear of prison keeping David cooped up indoors. He’s been behind bars, several times actually. But the possibility of getting deported back to Mexico terrifies him.

If it happened again, it’d be the fourth and final time, he says. A lot of things would have to go wrong for that to occur, but the stakes are high, and very real.

If he’s caught, he’ll serve time — 10 years, the cops told him. In fact, illegal re-entry into the United States by someone previously deported for a crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. After that, he’d be deported, again.

“I’ll die if I go back.”

How would he survive in Mexico? His whole family is here in the states. He doesn’t work anymore, he can’t, but he gets a check from the VA — every first of the month — and that’s where he goes for his kidney failure treatment. He’s covered, 100%, but there are no VA hospitals in Mexico and David is uninsured and afraid that his health will worsen if he’s deported.

“I know I’m breaking the law,” he says, “but what else can I do? I’ve been here for 50 years already.”

David is one of hundreds of military veterans who have been deported from the country they served. In 2015, as many as 65,000 residents with green cards — which allow them to live and work in the states legally — were serving in the armed forces. And while the military can be a fast-track to citizenship, it’s not guaranteed. Service members still need to apply for it, and not all of them do. David never got around to it.

“I know I’m breaking the law,” he says, “but what else can I do? I’ve been here for 50 years already.”

Immigrants legally living in the United States who are convicted of what are called aggravated felonies — which can include anything from a bar fight or drug possession to forgery or any theft resulting in a sentence of more than two years — may lose their status as legal residents. After their incarceration, they are deported back to their country of origin. For many, it’s a place they haven’t seen since they were children. Once that happens, it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever become a U.S. citizen.

For repeat offenders like David, it’s virtually impossible.

No one knows how many immigrant veterans have been deported in total — not even the Department of Homeland Security, the agency charged with handling and tracking these deportations. Deported Veterans Support House, an advocacy group based in Mexico, says it has helped 300 veterans who have been deported to 36 different countries. Other advocacy groups estimate that the number of veterans deported may be in the thousands.

David’s family left their home in Mexicali, Mexico, for the United States when he was 12. The states offered opportunity. It’s the whole reason people come here. “More work, more money, more everything,” he explains. “Everybody that came from another country, we came for the same thing. To better ourselves.”

David’s family lived in Calexico, California, for a time, then moved to San Diego, and finally to Los Angeles where they settled and put down roots.

“My mom and dad, they’re buried right here in L.A,” he says.

It was a family of 12 kids, five boys, seven girls. They’re all either legal residents or U.S. citizens like his four kids — two boys, two girls — and his three grandkids. David is the only one who isn’t a legal resident or citizen.

“I started using drugs, and that’s what fucked me up,” he explains. “Nobody used drugs in my family but me. I’m embarrassed. I’m the only one with a criminal record. The only one without papers.”

He’s also the only one who volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War.

He enlisted in 1974 when he was 19. Early on in his military service, David was sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier.

David doesn’t like to talk about it. It brings him pain. He enlisted because he wanted to go to Vietnam, and instead this happened. “What kind of shit is that?” he asks. The guy who did it was older than him, and was kicked out of the Air Force before finding his way into the Army. That’s where he found David.

The trauma lingers.

“I was like a new fish in the tank. I was a kid … I was sexually abused. Ever since that shit happened to me I haven’t been the same. I know that.”

David doesn’t know if the man ever hurt anyone else.

“I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”

The incident stayed with David for more than 40 years. Post-traumatic stress disorder, that’s what the VA diagnosed him with, along with other ailments relating to his sore joints and kidney failure.

David served during the tail-end of the war as a welder stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state, and started using heroin shortly after being assaulted. He sought solace in getting high, because it felt good, and because it was available.

“The drugs were everywhere.”

By the time he left the military in 1976, David was hooked. For a while the money he made as a welder supported the habit. There was a lot of work — different jobs in a lot of different places — but after a while it didn’t pay well enough to keep pace with his drug use. Eventually, that led to run-ins with the police.

One night in 1983, David was with a girl he knew, robbing houses. She’d break in and grab the stuff; David would drive. This time, although they got away as usual, someone got a look at his plates. That was enough.

“Heroin, it takes away your freedom, your family, your money, your job, everything.”

He was arrested for breaking and entering, which earned him two years in a prison in Tehachapi, California. His conviction meant he lost his status as a legal resident, so after he served his time, David was picked up by Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents and deported.

After he was dropped off in Tijuana, Mexico, David turned around and came back the same day — he went right through the entry point into the United States.

“I crossed the border like nothing. Like an American citizen. They let me go right in.”

But by 1986, he was back in the same spot. This time it was for breaking into a car. David insists that he was just an unwitting participant. “I was hanging with the wrong people,” he says. “Every time that something happens to me, it’s someone else. It’s just the way it is with me.”

The second time bought him another two years at Tehachapi, but he was out in one. ICE agents dropped him off in Nogales. And just like before, he turned around and came right back across the border.

In between his visits to prison, David was in and out of the county jail — sometimes just for a few days, other times for weeks, occasionally months. One time, he went in for 90 days, got out and started drinking, and wound up with another 90-day hitch.

At some point after his second deportation, David did a six-month stint in the L.A. county jail. Finally, he decided he’d had enough.

“It was just too much, man,” he says. “I couldn’t even enjoy drugs anymore. So I stopped.”

By this time his first marriage was over and his daughter was a teenager. David went to a church in his neighborhood and told them he wanted to get clean, so the priest sent him to a Christian home for 15 months.

David arrest

“I got out and I was clean. I was working, I had my car, and everything. I didn’t have papers, though.”

From the late 1980s until the early 2000s, things were better. David didn’t use, didn’t drink. He found stable work in his trade, welding, and eventually became the foreman at a company in southern California. He worked there for 16 years. He remarried and had three more kids with his second wife.

Then one night in 2003, ICE agents showed up at his home. He doesn’t know how they found out he was undocumented, or that he had a record. He doesn’t remember much of what happened — just that it was late, and that they knocked first.

“I said I didn’t do nothing. They said, ‘You’re illegal,’ and I said ‘Okay.’”

David served another two years, this time for illegal re-entry, and was sent to a federal penitentiary in Arizona before being deported to Nogales. And once again, he came back, though the border crossing was more difficult and more costly than it had been in the 1980s.

David says he met a group of guys in Mexico who charged him $2,000 before taking him to an opening in the border fence. From there, he made it back to Los Angeles, but things were different this time. His work disappeared. He and his second wife divorced. And later that year, the health problems began.

These days, David lives alone.

He has a lot of time to think about the mistakes he’s made and there’s a lot of regret, especially about his drug use.

“That was my life” he says. “I messed up. What I was doing is heavy. Heroin, it takes away your freedom, your family, your money, your job, everything … It’s nasty man. I learned to stay away.”

“This is my country,” David says. “I know it’s illegal being here. I feel bad, but I don’t have a choice.”

An illegal immigrant in a country he once served, he considers himself an American, even if he’s not a citizen, or even a legal resident.

“This is my country,” David says. “I know it’s illegal being here. I feel bad, but I don’t have a choice.”

David doesn’t like to talk to his kids and grandkids about what might happen to him if he’s discovered, he says. It’s hard to explain to them that though he’s spent 50 years of his life in the states, he’s not supposed to be here.

“They don’t understand it. They know. They talk about Trump — that he’s gonna send me to Mexico, and they go, ‘Why? What’s he gonna send you there for?’ They know, but they don’t understand.”

So he stays at home, and he waits, anxiously wondering if he’ll hear another knock at the door, like last time. He even changed his information on his driver’s license recently. He used his eldest daughter’s home address — she’s a U.S. citizen. At least that way, ICE might show up at her place first, and he might have a head’s up that they’re coming for him.

“I’m mostly just waiting for ICE to knock on my door.”

His family lives about 15 to 20 minutes away in a nearby city. He visits with them when he can. But usually, if he leaves the house, it’s to go to the VA — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s a short trip by car, and he’s very, very careful to stay within the speed limit.

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