Bernie Sanders has taken a stance on a little-known immigration issue few politicians will openly address.
Standing in front of the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana on Saturday, the senator from Vermont briefly spoke to an outspoken U.S. veteran who was deported to Mexico. Sanders approached the border fence and spoke through the metal bars to a few people standing in Mexico, including Hector Barajas, an Army recruit who joined the 82nd Airborne in 1995.
“We'd like you on this side,” Sanders told Barajas, who was deported to Mexico in 2004.
Sanders only said a few words to Barajas, but the brief exchange is significant. Sanders saying "we’d like you on this side" actually goes against current U.S. laws that do not allow deported veterans to return to the U.S.
Veterans who have been deported can only come back to the U.S. when they’re dead because they’re entitled to a burial at a U.S. military cemetery.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“For someone who has so much respect and support from the American people to thank me for my service and to wish that I was on that side of the fence is huge,” said Barajas, who has taken it upon himself to collect information on the number of veterans who have been deported.
“I'm still blown away. I keep watching the video, wishing I could have said something better,” Barajas told Fusion in a telephone interview.
About 35,000 non-citizens currently serve in the U.S. military, and approximately 5,000 permanent resident aliens enlist each year. New recruits are eligible to apply for citizenship as soon as they complete basic training—a much faster track to citizenship considering civilians can only apply for citizenship after five years of being a permanent resident.
Immigration officials could not provide the number of veterans who have been deported because the data is “not readily available.”
Barajas, who started a veterans’ support group in Tijuana, says he has personally heard of more than 120 veterans who have been deported. He also said he knows of veterans who have been deported in 25 different countries.
Barajas joined the 82nd Airborne in 1995 and served as a paratrooper. But in 2004, after being honorably discharged, the United States deported Barajas to Mexico, a country he left before his fourth birthday. Barajas was deported after he pled guilty to firing a weapon at a car that his friend believed was following them. No one was wounded and Barajas maintains he didn’t pull the trigger. (You can read his detailed profile here.)
Saturday’s visit marked the second time Sanders visited the U.S.-Mexico border. In March he visited the border wall near Nogales, Arizona.
Sanders and his fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton are both fighting for Latinos voters in California. Latinos could make up as many as 2 in 10 voters in California, according to The Associated Press. And Sanders needs every single Latino vote he can get because the latest poll show Clinton would defeat Sanders in California 57% to 39%.
Clinton also has history on her side. Latinos voted for Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama by a margin of nearly two-to-one in the 2008 presidential race, according to an analysis from the Pew Research Center.
During his campaign stop near the border on Saturday, Sanders focused his discussion on immigration policies that can keep families separated. The Sanders campaign said he was joined by “Maria Puga, widow of Anastasio Hernández Roja, who died of a heart attack after Border Patrol agents beat him and shot him repeatedly with a taser.”
“For [Sanders] to openly talk about path towards citizenship and not separating families, that is important to everyone affected, especially for me,” said Barajas, whose U.S.-born daughter lives in the U.S.