Exiled: U.S. veterans deported after committing crimes

Deported veterans on the U.S./Mexico border.

The men were dressed in United States military uniforms. They raised their right hand and took the oath to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

As they swore to protect the country from all foreign and domestic enemies, their patriotism was obvious. The United States was the only country they recognized as home.

They had migrated with their parents at a young age and gained legal U.S. residence. Despite being born in Mexico—, many of them considered themselves Americans and wanted to serve their country.

Some of the men served during the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

They were awarded medals, certificates and other decorations for their service.

Despite seeing themselves as Americans who had done their part serving their country, they were not documented U.S. citizens in the eyes of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Years after retiring from the military, their citizenship status resurfaced when they broke the law.

They were arrested and charged for different crimes, including conspiracy or possession to buy marijuana or cocaine as well as aid and abet to kidnapping.

The veterans served time in jail and then were deported to Mexico.

The oath they took when they enrolled in the military admitted them to serve the country — but didn’t give them automatic U.S. citizenship, as some of them had thought.

Ivan Ocon/ U.S. Army

Born in Ciudad Juarez in 1977, Ocon was raised as a legal permanent resident in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

He graduated from Oñate High School unsure of what his next step in life would be.

“I was actually watching a movie where some guys, they graduated high school and they were in the same dilemma as me, so they joined the Marines,” said Ocon.

“Well, Marines is kind of water stuff. I’m not really into water so I’ll join the Army, do something for my country. That’s how I felt,” said Ocon.

The year was 1997 when Ocon called a recruiter.

“They said, ‘Yeah! Come on over!' And I was happy. I was happy to join, it’s what I wanted to do,” said Ocon.

He signed up in El Paso, according to his DD Form 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.

“When I first enlisted, they said, ‘How long do you want to enlist for?’ And I said ‘20 years!’ They said, ‘No, you have to slow down. We’ll give you two or three or four. If you like it, then you can re-enlist,’” said Ocon.

He didn’t just “like” it. The Army would turn into his passion and he would re-enlist two times.

“I would always volunteer for everything if we had a mission. I was a mechanic, but I loved doing all the Army stuff,” said Ocon.

“I felt a lot of pride, I felt like ‘I’m an American! I feel proud!’ But little did I know, I wasn’t an American,” said Ocon.

During his second re-enlistment, Ocon says he was inquiring about obtaining his U.S. citizenship.

“I went to the legal channels in Fort Bliss to get [information]. They told me, ‘We don’t know anything about that.’ I said, ‘My recruiter told me,’, but they said they didn’t know,” said Ocon.

“That’s when I came up on orders for deployment and all the citizenship stuff went out the window,” said Ocon.

Ocon was deployed to Iraq.

Upon his return, he was discharged under honorable conditions in his final duty station of Fort Bliss, according to his DD214.

“When I came back, I started having financial problems when my daughter was born. I was trying to get assistance through the military, financial assistance,” said Ocon.

Ocon remained in the U.S. for approximately two years before being arrested.

El Paso jail records show Ocon was arrested in 2006 and charged with in-transit possession of firearms.

“What happened is, I knew a crime was committed by a real close member of my family and I didn’t report it,” said Ocon.

Ocon said a close family member was trying to get ahold of the family member’s daughter and there was a firearm involved. Because Ocon was aware of the incident and didn’t report it, Ocon was also charged with aid and abet to kidnapping.

Ocon went on to serve nine years in prison for the charge, according to him and other family members.

“Then after that, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) picked me up. I filed my case not to get deported for about 10 months and I lost,” said Ocon.

“I qualified, I did the fingerprinting and all the tests they do to become citizen, but the only thing they said is you lack good moral character. Good luck in Mexico, bye,” said Ocon.

He works doing custom leather work in Ciudad Juarez, earning an unsteady income.

He found the Deported Veteran Support House Juarez Bunker, where he now helps other deported veterans requesting military medical records, filing VA claims, pensions, etc.

With less than three years of deportation, Ocon says he hasn’t become accustomed to living in Mexico and wants a second chance to return to the U.S.

The Repatriate our Patriots Act

A proposed law, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act, was introduced by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX-15) in 2017 and supported by congressman Beto O’Rourke.

The bill aims to bring back U.S. veterans who were deported and received an honorable discharge. The bill would allow deported veterans to go through the naturalization process abroad, return to the United States as lawfully admitted permanent residents, and regain their veteran benefits.

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