Formerly deported veterans become U.S. citizens in special San Diego ceremony

Kate Morrissey
The San Diego Union-Tribune (TNS)

The night before he became a U.S. citizen, Mauricio Hernandez Mata barely slept.

The formerly deported Army combat veteran is used to sleepless nights, one of the many effects of the post-traumatic stress disorder he carries from his time in Afghanistan. Still, the mixed emotions of the moment — becoming officially part of a country that had shunned him for more than a decade — kept him up more than usual.

But when the moment arrived Wednesday in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in downtown San Diego, it was a pleasant surprise.

"It was nothing like I imagined it could be," Hernandez Mata said as he walked out, citizenship document in hand. "You could feel the energy in the room with everybody, all the support. Quite an experience — quite a lovely experience."

Hernandez Mata and Leonel Contreras became the latest formerly deported veterans of the U.S. military to become citizens. The Biden administration held a special ceremony Wednesday morning for the two as a celebration of the progress made under its Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative, known as IMMVI.

Debra Rogers, who is the Department of Homeland Security director of IMMVI, said during a speech at the ceremony that 65 deported veterans have come back to the United States so far through the initiative.

"You are the ideal American citizen," she told Hernandez Mata. "We have only caught a glimpse of your struggles, your bravery and your incredible resilience."

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Hernandez Mata was ordered deported in 2009, several years after he was honorably discharged from the military. He had hoped to re-enlist a few years after he got out, but because of behavior related to his then-undiagnosed PTSD, he ended up in the criminal justice system instead. Then, the U.S. government took away his green card, and he was deported to Mexico, a country he had not lived in since he was 7 years old.

"Whatever charges got a combat veteran deported are irrelevant," he said. "No one deserves to be deported after sacrificing, doing the things these young men and I had to do. These young men died over there. They were destroyed over there. They were other things when they came home."

Though originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco, he spent most of his deported life in Tijuana. There, he met his wife.

"She's a saint," he said, referencing the difficulties of living with someone with PTSD. "People don't usually like dealing with people like me too long, and the universe blessed me with a person with infinite patience and infinite kindness."

San Diego, CA - February 08: At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 in San Diego, CA., Mauricio Hernandez Mata is hugged by his wife, Azucena Alcantar after taking the oath towards becoming a U.S. citizen. Also with Mata is his daughter, Emily Annet Hernandez. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Almost a decade ago, he and Hector Barajas, another formerly deported veteran, began working to raise awareness about the experiences of deported veterans, hoping that they might one day be able to go home.

But the path to return was complex. The few attorneys working on deported veterans' cases frequently complained that there was no process to follow and that government agencies often sent them in Kafkaesque circles. Yet one by one, they began to find ways to bring them back.

In July 2021, the Department of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs began the initiative to help deported veterans and their immediate family members.

"It's been really transformational to have the partnership of the U.S. government," said Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who worked on Hernandez Mata's case. "There are still hundreds more that need to come home, but the foundation is there for the kind of cooperation that we need from the government to make it happen."

Hernandez Mata was able to get the felony conviction in his case vacated and replaced with a misdemeanor weapon possession violation. Then an immigration judge reinstated his green card. But it took the IMMVI program helping to get permission for his wife and child to cross from Mexico before he was able to come back.

On Wednesday, the naturalization ceremony room was a reunion of people who have fought for almost a decade for deported veterans. As the national anthem played, the many veterans in the room, including Hernandez Mata and Contreras, stood in crisp salute.

After Rogers led the two men through the citizenship oath, the crowd cheered loudly.

"Now I am an American citizen, but I have always been an American," Hernandez Mata said as he navigated a slew of interviews with press.

Toward the end, the five formerly deported veterans in the room gathered for a photo.

Among them was Barajas, who was among the first to return to U.S. soil and become a citizen, as well as David Bariu, who was able to come back last year and become a citizen after being deported to Kenya.

According to Barajas, another deported veteran was allowed to return to the United States from Tijuana on Wednesday morning, and one more will be crossing from Ciudad Juárez next week.

As for Hernandez Mata, now that he's resettled in San Diego, he's been able to get more support for his PTSD. He's taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist, and he's able to get another kind of therapy through training Muay Thai at a gym in National City.

As he left the ceremony room and waited for the elevator, Hernandez Mata held up his citizenship document for his 7-year-old daughter.

"Do you know what this means?" he asked her. "It means you will have one of these soon, too."

He hopes to be able to help more like him who are still waiting in exile.

"Soldier on. Don't quit," he advised those still living in deportation. "Quit is not in our nature. We are not forgotten."