DONNA, Texas – It’s a debate over service and citizenship as several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus plan to visit deported veterans in Tijuana, Mexico on Saturday.
More military families on the Texas border want to tell their stories like that of one former U.S. soldier who’s spent the last 15 years banned from entering the country he once served.
“The focus of today’s meeting is to talk about our deported veterans,” U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela told a group of veterans gathered at an American Legion post in Donna, Texas.
A dozen or so war veterans attended the town hall to ask their congressman about the veteran benefits and citizenship.
“Veterans who serve our country honorably are being deported," exclaimed Legion Commander Felix Rodriguez. "That’s unacceptable!”
It was an emotional subject for the patriots in the room.
“Why is it that we don’t have a law that states that any veteran that serves and goes to war automatically becomes a citizen,” asked one Vietnam war veteran.
One man in this gathering isn’t a soldier, but came to fight for his half brother.
“I do have a quick message for the Congressman from Alfredo Garcia,” said Alan Blackwelder, who played a recorded video of his brother on his cell phone, pleading for help.
“After I came back from the war I was nervous and I broke the laws,” Garcia is heard saying over a speakerphone. “I’m not in good health right now and I was hoping that you could help me out.”
Alfredo Garcia spent the first seven years of his life in Mexico, the same country where he’s now spent the last 15 years. In between that time, he signed up with the U.S. Army and was deployed on active duty to Korea and then Vietnam from 1969 to 1972.
Blackwelder opened a memory box and showed the KENS 5 Border team several of Garcia’s mementos from when he served. He remembers his older brother as a healthy and a patriotic person, but like many who fought during that time, he returned a different man.
“He was exposed to Agent Orange and when he came back he never sought help.”
Blackwelder admitted his brother committed several crimes in the U.S. for which he served jail time, including robbery and drug possession and distribution, he said.
Those convictions made him a target for the government after 9/11, claimed Blackwelder.
He said in 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard questioned Garcia while he was fishing in the gulf. After they pulled up his drug and robbery convictions, Coast Guard officers detained him before he was taken to an immigration judge who ordered his deportation.
“They wanted them removed because they felt it was a threat to our country,” Blackwelder said.
In a separate video recorded just across the border in Matamoros, Mexico, Garcia explained how his application for citizenship was canceled because he was not able to attend his appointments while deployed to war. An application he never started again.
Today, USCIS said it starts the naturalization process at basic training for non-citizens. However, many deported veterans from previous wars have still been left behind.
All the deported veterans the KENS 5 Border Team have spoken to said they are hoping for a law or an executive order by the President to allow them to return home.
“[This] really kind of helps motivate us and helps us send a message back to the people in Washington that may not agree with us,” said Congressman Vela, referring to his GOP counterparts.
Blackwelder said his only option now is to continue sharing his brother’s story, hoping to galvanize enough support for deported veterans like his brother.
“We should embrace these soldiers who fought for our country, who gave their lives and put their lives on the line, to provide each and every American here in the United States with freedom.”