Nuevo Progreso, Mexico – Many brave men and women fought for our country, but for a select group of soldiers, freedom was promised in the form of citizenship.
This is the story of two U.S. military veterans who, even after serving decades ago, continue to fight for citizenship.
Nuevo Progreso is a small, vibrant town on the Mexican side of the border. But despite it being in one of the most violent regions in Mexico, hundreds of Americans cross the Progreso international bridge every day to get there.
Of course, most of them make it a day trip. One of the exceptions, is Jose Maria Martinez, a decorated U.S. marine, who isn’t allowed back.
“I got deported 15 years ago,” Martinez said.
Martinez, was born in Mexico in 1949. He said he was brought to the U.S. by his parents at age seven.
“When I crossed the river in 1956 with my family we were legal, I had a green card,” he said.
By age 19, he heard his calling: to fight for a country he deemed his in Vietnam.
“When I signed on that dotted line, it wasn’t for just a certain amount of time, it was for life,” he said.
But after six years, his service came to an end. A scuffle with another soldier, landed him behind bars for six months. Martinez would then leave the Marine Corps in 1972 under an honorable discharge. He showed us his DD-d214 discharge document, which indicates he is a U.S. citizen.
He moved back to South Texas where he started a family. He showed us pictures on his cellphone of one of his daughters and the granddaughter he’s never met.
Martinez struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said an urge for adrenaline led him to become a drug mule in the late 1990’s.
“I smuggled twice and I got caught,” he said.
Martinez spent the following five years in prison despite what his DD-d214 document stated. He was deported to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico and stripped from his social security and veteran benefits in 2002.
“They said ‘you didn’t take the oath’ I said, ‘I took the oath to serve, I took the oath to die for my country, is that not enough oath?’ they said ‘no’.”
On the U.S. side of the border, in the rural area of Edinburg, Texas lives 58-year-old Mayanin Casarez.
“This is it, this is where I feel safe,” Casares said.
Casarez was also born in Mexico and brought by her parents at age 10. But unlike Martinez, she didn’t serve during a time of war. However, while deployed to Germany in the early 1980’s, the private first class of the U.S. Army said she was led to believe she would become an American after her tour.
“I spoke with my commanding officer and he said ‘we’re going to work on it and we’re going to get you your citizenship.’”
But that paperwork never made it back to the U.S. and she’s remained a legal resident ever since. To this day, she said, it shocks people to know she can’t vote for a commander-in-chief.
“They assume that just because you’re a veteran that you’re a citizen already.”
Casares said her anxiety worsened after one of her neighbors was taken in a recent immigration roundup by customs agents. Casarez said she walks a straight line, knowing she could too, one day be deported.
“That’s the worst part, that’s the worst part,” she said sobbing. “It’s not going to go away until the problem is solved or until I get my citizenship.”
“It’s shocking,” said Texas Congressman Vicente Gonzalez. “I just can’t imagine anything more unamerican.”
The freshman congressman represents a district with 40,000 war veterans, many of them enlisted as non-citizens.
“They come home, they make a minor mistake and next thing they’re deported,” said Gonzalez. “In a sense, we’ve breached their contract. Because we have an agreement and they fulfilled their end of the bargain and we’re not fulfilling ours.”
It’s not clear how many deported war veterans exist. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not keep a record, and neither does the Department of Veteran Affairs.
On the other hand, the Deported Veterans Support House, an organization based in Tijuana, Mexico said it has tracked 318 deported veterans across 36 countries. But estimates the real number to be in the thousands.
The Department of Defense said about 18,700 non-citizens serve in the armed forces at any given time.
The Marine Corps told us they couldn’t comment on Martinez’s DD-214 discharge document due to privacy laws.
The Department of Veteran Affairs said there are now workarounds to get benefits to veterans abroad, regardless of their immigration status. However, reaching all deported veterans abroad, is a major hurdle.
“I’ve behaved and done nothing wrong with the hope that the government would realize that, yeah, I screwed up, but I paid. I paid completely,” Martinez said.
At the end of the day, all the 67-year-old said he is fighting for are his benefits and a chance to visit his family freely.
“It’s funny how something so small, can claim so much of your life,” he said.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services began partnering with the Department of Defense in 2009 to start the naturalization process at enlistment so members can become citizens by the time they graduate from basic training. In 2014, more than 4,000 soldiers were naturalized.
Congressman Gonzalez met with top Whitehouse officials this week to discuss a bill he’s drafting that would repatriate deported veterans and prevent others from being kicked out. The congressman’s office, said the meeting went well and are confident they can work something out with president Trump soon.