California Governor Jerry Brown granted full pardons this weekend to three U.S. veterans who were deported after being convicted of crimes and serving out prison sentences in the state.
Advocates representing the deported veterans say this is the first time that a governor has pardoned veterans who have been deported.
The three veterans pardoned hours before Easter Sunday were living in California when they committed their crimes. The veterans have been in lengthy legal challenges in effort to return to their families in the U.S., and advocates say the pardons will help pave the way for their eventual return to the country they took an oath to defend.
All of the men pardoned currently reside in Mexico. They were deported after serving their sentences in prison.
Erasmo Apodaca served in the U.S. Marines and was deployed during Operation Desert Storm and was convicted in December 1996 of stealing about $500 worth of goods from an ex-girlfriend’s house. Apodaca served 10 months in prison and was deported in 1997 after serving his sentence, according to the ACLU of California, which was part of a coalition of groups that submitted the pardon requests on behalf of the deported veterans.
Marco Antonio Chavez was enlisted in the Marine Corps. and served honorably for four years. In 1998, he was convicted of animal cruelty. He was deported in 2002 after serving 10 months in prison and parole for another year.
Hector Barajas, 40, served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Storm and was convicted of shooting “at an inhabited vehicle” in 2002. The governor said Barajas served about a year in prison and another year parole before he was deported in July 2004.
He is the most outspoken of the three deported veteran and has been the subject of dozens of news stories, including a 2014 article published by Fusion. He’s also the founder of Deported Veterans Support House, a resource center and shelter in Tijuana.
“It’s reassuring that people are going out of their way to figure out how to get deported veterans back home,” Hector Barajas told Fusion in a telephone interview this weekend.
The governor said all of the men have paid their debt to society and earned a full and unconditional pardon.
Barajas said a coalition of advocates and attorneys collectively known as Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported submitted the request for pardon on his behalf. He said in total, four pardon applications were submitted and it’s unclear why one of them was denied.
“Hector Barajas, Erasmo Apodaca, and Marco Antonio Chavez Medina long ago paid their price for their mistakes, but their deportation has been the worst price of all, as they have been permanently separated from their families and the only country they knew,” Jennie Pasquarella, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said in a statement.
About 35,000 non-citizens currently serve in the U.S. military, and approximately 5,000 permanent resident aliens (or green card holders) enlist each year, according to the Department of Defense. Undocumented immigrants can’t join the military but legal permanent residents who enlist can apply to become naturalized U.S. citizens as soon as they graduate from basic training. Generally, permanent residents have to wait several years before they can apply for a lengthy citizenship process.
But a 2016 ACLU of California report found the federal government has failed to provide “adequate resources and assistance to ensure service members were naturalized during military.” We’ve reached out to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—the agency responsible for proving immigration assistance and resources to military service members—for comment and will update if we hear back.
The ACLU report found there are at least 239 U.S. veterans who have been deported, though they say the number is likely much higher.
Current law only allows deported veterans to return to the U.S. once they’ve died so they can be buried at a U.S. military cemetery.
Update, 2:13 PM: USCIS spokesperson Arwen FitzGerald told Fusion his agency “has a robust military outreach program to reach active-duty service members and veterans on military installations, Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, and universities.” The agency launched a program in 2009 to help facilitate naturalization at basic training, years after the three veterans had been deported. According to the latest figures from 2014, USCIS naturalized 4,261 military members through the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative.
This post has been updated to reflect the identity of the USCIS spokesperson.