The Biden administration has taken steps to bring back dozens of former military members who have been deported.
After fighting in Afghanistan, former US Army soldier Mauricio Hernandez Mata returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says eventually led to trouble with the law. He was then deported to Mexico, a country he had not lived in since he was a boy.
But on Wednesday, he and another deported veteran were sworn in as U.S. citizens in a special naturalization ceremony in San Diego, California.
The two veterans were among 65 people allowed to return to the US over the past year as part of a growing effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to make amends with immigrants who served in the US military only to end up deported.
The Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative seeks to address the hundreds of U.S. military veterans affected by what immigration advocates and others see as unfair punishment. Many are still struggling to find legal help to return to the US, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“After my deportation, yeah, I never thought this day would come,” said Hernandez, 41, dressed in a black suit and tie after being presented with a certificate of American citizenship. “It’s definitely been a long journey. I’m glad we got a second chance, as anyone who was either born in America or fought for America should have.”
Leonel Contreras, 63, who joined the US Army at age 17 and served a year in 1976, was also sworn in at the ceremony.
“I feel very blessed,” said Contreras, who was allowed to return to the U.S. about four months ago. “I feel very fortunate to be back on American soil.”
Both have spent the last decade living in the border city of Tijuana.
Contreras was taken by US immigration authorities – who entered the barbershop where he worked in National City, south of San Diego – placed in immigration detention and deported. His life changed forever.
He continued working in Tijuana as a barber and found work in call centers because of his English, helping to answer questions from clients of American companies. But it wasn’t easy.
During that time, his two sons grew up, and he is now a grandfather. Now that he has American citizenship, Contreras said he’s not looking back.
“I just want to go to all the places I’ve dreamed about, like the Grand Canyon and maybe Mount Rushmore,” he said.
Hernandez said his deportation followed unspecified “reckless actions and mistakes I made because of my PTSD.” He declined to provide further details. But he said that after he was allowed back into the country a year ago, he was determined to get US citizenship so he could go to the store and not feel “terrified” that he would be picked up and sent back to Mexico.
His seven-year-old daughter hugged him after he took the oath to the cheers of a crowd that included more than a dozen veterans from various branches. Then he turned and kissed his wife.
“I’ve always been an American, the difference is now I’m an American citizen and I have all the rights that any American-born citizen has,” Hernandez said.
“And it was important to me to have those rights just to prove a point — the point is that anyone who is willing to lay down their life, their sanity, and give everything they hold dear for American freedom should eventually, at some point in their lives, consider a US citizen.”