The hustle and bustle is unmistakable in the streets of Nuevo Progreso, a small Mexican border town which is famous for cheap drinks, medicine, shopping and Winter Texans. In the small border town of about 10,000 people, Jose Maria Martinez earns his keep as a small business owner about five blocks down the main drag strip.
He sells everything that has to do with cellular phones in his small store with American military accents along the walls and racks.
Martinez was in a partial panic because one of the services he offers is refilling prepaid cellular phones, but because of the recent 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico City the lines in his shop are long with people waiting patiently to start up their phone service again.
The Matamoros native has the customer service skills only a proud business owner can possess. He keeps the customer happy, sometimes making a quip that would make most mothers blush. Many customers sit around in his store just to share his company.
In this town where margaritas flow and tacos and bolillos are shared, all seems tranquil. But to the trained eye lies a problem not known by many - including some members of the United States Congress.
For the past 15 years Martinez has been living on the south side of the United States border, not by choice but because he was deported. His story comes with a twist because during one of the nation’s most violent conflicts, the Vietnam War, Martinez was a grunt in the Alpha Company First Battalion, Third Marine Division serving The United States proudly.
Martinez’s story starts in 1956, when he entered the United States with his family and a green card. A decade later he enlisted with the Marines, and in 1967 he was in the muck on the other side of the world fighting in Vietnam.
In 1972 Martinez was honorably discharged. His papers clearly state, “Born in Mexico, Discharged as a United States Citizen”.
“I was always under the impression I was a United States citizen,” Martinez said. “Hell, I was even a registered Republican.” Martinez is a strong Trump supporter and shares his tough stance on illegal immigration.
Martinez lived his life after Vietnam working construction and paying into social security for 30 years, until he began moving drugs. He admits that while the money was good, the adrenaline rush was the principle reason for transporting drugs across the border.
He credits his need for his next adrenaline rush on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has cost him several relationships and eventually his freedom. The law caught up with him, and in 1997 he was busted for possession with intent to distribute, and he was sentenced to five years in a federal prison.
Martinez knew the saying: do the crime, do the time. That did not bother him.
But when his debt to society was paid, the United States was ready to deport him for not being a naturalized citizen.
A debate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) about being an American ensued. Unfortunately for Martinez his DD214, the document issued by the Department of Defense identifying a veteran’s condition of discharge, was not a document recognized by the INS as a verification of citizenship.
A federal judge informed Martinez that fighting his deportation case could result in a win. It would take two-to-three years and Martinez would need to remain incarcerated.
“I had already done my five years,” he said. “I said ‘you know what? Send me home.’”
In 2002 Martinez was deported to Mexico.
Martinez knows he committed a crime and accepted being deported, because he thought it would be for a short period until he could reapply for citizenship, but he is denied ever entering the country again, even to visit his family. He has six daughters and numerous grandchildren which he rarely sees.
To make matters worse and what truly bothered the Vietnam Veteran was losing his benefits from the Veteran Administration and his social security benefits. To him, he had been punished four times for committing a crime because he went to jail, was stripped of his citizenship, stripped of his benefits from the Veterans Administration and lost his social security benefits.
Martinez cannot fathom how he is not an American citizen. He took his oath to fight for the United States. However, that proved not to be enough.
A Congressman’s Plight
Martinez is not the only veteran that has been deported from the United States which is why Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (D-15) is taking on the responsibility to bring them home.
Gonzalez first heard of deported veterans on the campaign trail for his successful 2016 congressional bid.
“I was shocked and appalled and I couldn’t believe our country was deporting American veterans who had served in the armed services and had been honorably discharged,” Gonzalez said.
Recently the Congressman visited a group of deported veterans in Tijuana, Baja California Mexico. These veterans live together, support one another and find jobs for each other. They gather at The Bunker, an organization founded by deported veteran Hector Barajas, where deported veterans can find fellowship and brotherhood.
Gonzalez said these veterans for the most part have been deported for minor crimes. The Bunker receives new veterans monthly. A surprising note is that not all deported veterans are Mexican nationals.
“Since I’ve taken up this issue I’ve found deported veterans in 36 countries around the world,” Congressman Gonzalez said. “I just think it is the most shameful, un-American thing I have ever seen our country do to veterans.”
Currently INS does not question whether or not deportees have served in the armed forces. This makes it difficult to track just how many veterans have been deported. But Gonzalez thinks more or less about 3,000 veterans have been deported.
Life of Crime
Because crimes are usually the reason veterans are deported, Gonzalez knows some people will take the position to just deport them and never let them back.
But the Congressman thinks it is a wrong position to take because these are veterans that had no prior history when they entered the service, served honorably and were honorably discharged.
“They come back from some of the most horrific wars in the world and we’re not giving them the mental help they deserve when they come home to transition them into society,” Gonzalez said.
A lot of the crimes Gonzalez believes, are caused by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that the government did not treat upon returning stateside.
He argues that currently there are American veterans who have also committed crimes and they get to stay in the country they so proudly defended. All the trouble veterans find themselves in Gonzalez attributes to the lack of attention they are given upon returning from foreign wars.
Ultimately, Congressman Gonzalez knows this will be an uphill battle in Washington D.C. He has already taken the first step by introducing H.R. 3429, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act, bipartisan legislation that would not only bring deported veterans home, but would also expedite their United States Citizenship process.
Recently a survey conducted by his office throughout the 15th District of Texas found 85 percent of constituents believe veterans should be protected from deportation and deported veterans should be allowed back to the United States.
H.R. 3429 would have the Attorney General rescind a removal order, but would exclude those who have been convicted of heinous crimes like voluntary manslaughter, murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, child abuse and/or terrorism.
Gonzalez has even met with President Trump, and during the course of both meetings he agreed the United States should not be deporting veterans who fought for their country and the freedom of Americans.
“I hope eventually we can get the votes and get it through the house and senate and have a good bill that President (Trump) will sign into law,” Gonzalez said.
During his second visit with the President, Gonzalez also spoke on the subject of immigration reform, which he admits is needed in the United States. There is potential of applying H.R. 3429 into an immigration bill to do it all at once, which in turn would work.
The Congressman does not care who gets the credit, so long as Deported Veterans return home.
Martinez said he was unsure if he would move back to the United States if granted permission.
“Probably not,” he said.
He has made a life for himself in Mexico. He makes a good living, has a low cost of living and friends. However, he would like the ability to visit his family freely.
Asked if he regretted serving in the US Armed Forces, he answers without hesitation.
“Absolutely not! As a matter of fact, if they asked me to go back to war today I would.” he said. “The reasons would be different this time. I did it to serve my country last time, this time it would be to protect my family.”