Deported veterans find new hope under Biden administration
From the bank of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, Ivan Ocon squinted toward the Paso del Norte Bridge with a grim expression.
“I had read the only way I could come home was dead,” he said. “I still had my military uniforms. In those first couple of months, I was really contemplating on coming to the bridge, hanging myself here.”
Ocon, 43, is a deported U.S. military veteran who served in the Army. He’s now an advocate for veterans’ rights with the Deported Veterans Support House. Though he was born in Juárez, “home” is north of the border, Ocon said. Now, after five years away, he has a renewed hope that he can return to the United States — alive.
On July 2, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough announced a concentrated effort to support non-citizen veterans, including those who have been deported. Part of the initiative includes reviewing the cases of deported veterans like Ocon and “bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled,” according to Secretary Mayorkas’ statement.
José Francisco López, 76, a Vietnam veteran and the director of the Juárez chapter of DVSH, is optimistic that this time, the promise to help deported veterans will come to fruition. López was drafted into the Army in 1967 at age 23.
“At that time, I did not speak any English,” López said in Spanish. “And even so, I went to war. I never said ‘no’. With pleasure, I went to serve the nation where I lived.”
Both López and Ocon moved to the United States as children. López was only 14 when his mother obtained legal residency for the family and they moved to Texas. Despite his age, he did not attend school, but immediately started working to help support his family.
Ocon left Juárez for the United States at age 7. He grew up in Las Cruces and graduated from Oñate High School (now Organ Mountain High School).
“When I graduated high school, I was like, ‘Well, what am I going to do now?’” Ocon said. “So I decided to serve my country. Well, I thought it was my country at that time, and so I enlisted in the U.S. Army.” Ocon was deployed in 2003 to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Though they fought in wars decades apart, both veterans experienced trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder because of their service. According to the National Center for PTSD, more than a quarter of veterans with diagnosed PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder. Both López and Ocon turned to drugs after leaving the Army. López was arrested on drug conspiracy charges in 1995 when he bought cocaine from an undercover officer. He was sentenced to nine years in federal prison.
“I got out in 2003 and immigration picked me up right there,” he said. “They brought me to Juárez with nothing, just a shirt and a pair of pants.”
Ocon struggled with feelings of guilt after returning from his deployment. “I wanted to still be out there, deployed, and they brought us back,” he said. “I wanted to be over there because that’s what I signed up for, to serve this country and go to war. I didn’t want to come back. I was just a total mess. I didn’t know what the purpose was in being back over here while the war was over there. And you still have friends that are over there fighting and dying. It led me into drinking and other types of drugs. And that was my downfall.”
Within two years of his discharge, Ocon was dependent on drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for his depression. Then, in 2006, he was charged with aiding and abetting a kidnapping, an offense he said was committed by a family member, but that he had knowledge of and did not report. He served nine years of a 10-year sentence.
“In 2015, I got out of federal prison, and thinking I was going to get out to the streets and go back home. And all that was wrong, because when I got to the front of the prison, they said ‘Hold up, ICE is going to come pick you up,’” Ocon said. “It was a shock.”
Ocon fought the deportation proceedings but lost due to “lack of moral character.” He was deported to Juárez.
A 2019 Government Accountability Office report showed that ICE does not have reliable data on the number of veterans deported or in deportation proceedings, or even whether its own policies regarding non-citizen veterans are consistently applied. Once deported, veterans cannot access the VA benefits they earned. Many deportees also leave behind family members.
“I have many grandchildren that I have never met,” López said. “I want to go (to the United States) for that reason, to meet my grandchildren.”
“I have an 18-year-old daughter right now that, if I’m able to go back, I want to fix that relationship with her,” Ocon said. “I know there’s many like me that are going through the same thing. They lost their family, everything. So we’re trying to get back to our families on U.S. soil.”
Even though their deportations feel like a betrayal, the two veterans remain proud of their service.
“Many of my friends (in Vietnam) were also immigrants, they were also drafted. None of us refused to go. We went to war, not like the ex-president, Donald Trump,” López said. “We immigrants never backed out. We always wanted to help our new nation. I won medals, I had a good record in my work. It’s something I am proud of.”
While serving his sentence, Ocon maintained a connection to the military by working in a uniform factory. “I still felt part of the military, you know, dressing my brothers, and it brought a lot of pride in that work, and that I was still part of something,” he said.
According to the advocacy group Repatriate Our Patriots, most deported veterans were never naturalized either because recruiters lied to them or because there was no support available to guide them through the naturalization process.
“The recruiter told me, ‘Oh, yeah, don’t worry, this is going to make you a citizen,’” Ocon said. “I thought it was automatic. I didn’t know until later on. I went to the chain of command, nobody knew anything. I went to the (judge advocate general) office thinking they will know something. They’re the lawyers, right? They didn’t know anything. So you get discouraged. And then you come up on deployment. And then that’s it, you know, you don’t think about that anymore.”
Part of DVSH’s mission is to educate non-citizen service members and veterans still living in the U.S. about the naturalization process and the importance of being proactive in applying for citizenship. This effort finally has official support: Secretary Mayorkas’ announcement includes a directive to establish a resource center that will assist non-citizen service members and their immediate families with immigration and naturalization issues.
After years of waiting in limbo, Ocon and López are hopeful that this latest announcement from the Biden administration will finally lead to the news they’ve longed to hear. While numerous civic organizations have attempted to press for relief for deported veterans in the past, López said that this time is different because government agencies are involved. DHS and Veterans Affairs are working together to establish a database of veterans living abroad.
“Now we got so many people involved in the movement,” Ocon said. “When you got (Illinois) Senator Tammy Duckworth, a combat veteran, all these other people supporting the movement in advocating for deported veterans, something’s going to happen.”
“This time it’s for real, this time we believe it because it’s the president of the United States who said it. We are all happy about returning home,” López said as he gazed across the river that divides him from the nation he served. “We have been betrayed many times, and I hope that this time, it’s true.”
Cover photo: Veterans Ivan Ocon, left, and José Francisco López raise their arms in a sign of victory. Ocon and López were both deported, but hope to be able to return to the U.S. since the Biden administration’s announcement of an initiative to review cases of deported veterans. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)