By Reyes Mata / Puente News Collaborative

When Mario Arturo Moreno, a deported U.S. Army veteran, was hospitalized with a serious illness in Juárez two months ago, his family moved quickly to transfer him to the El Paso VA hospital for emergency care.

His daughter coordinated with a veterans assistance organization to follow the protocols required to move her ailing 77-year-old father across the U.S.-Mexico border. He was slipping into sepsis after an unsuccessful attempt in a Juárez hospital to remove a ruptured appendix.

Mario Arturo Moreno with his daughter, Banesa Moreno Navarrete (Courtesy Moreno family)

“I already had contacted the ambulance on the other side of the border so that they could pick him up and bring him to the bridge,” said Moreno’s daughter, Banesa Moreno Navarrete. “And transport from the VA had already contacted me, telling me they were on call, and I would just have to contact them so they could go to the bridge and pick him up. Everything was in place.”

But one critical detail remained: permission from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for Moreno’s emergency humanitarian parole, which is the only way a deported veteran can be allowed into the United States for emergency health care. Through an executive order, President Biden created the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative in July 2021 to help deported veterans like Moreno receive their veteran benefits, including emergency health care.

But for the Moreno family, it did not help.

Mario Arturo Moreno

The family, desperate to bring their father into the U.S. for medical assistance, filed their humanitarian parole request with Homeland Security on Jan. 13, three days after Moreno’s unsuccessful surgery.

They appealed to the Juárez hospital to inform the U.S. government about their father’s quickly declining health. The hospital’s medical vice directorate, Dr. Beatriz Iliana Perez Martinez, issued a letter describing the U.S. veteran’s health as being critical “with a high risk of death in the short term.”

While awaiting the decision from Homeland Security, Navarrete said she would speak with her father, who was semi-conscious and weak, asking for water.

“I would tell him ‘I love you,’” Banessa wept. She said her father would respond, trying to comfort her, saying: “Esta bien, mija. Esta bien.” (It’s OK, my daughter. It’s OK.)

On Jan. 30, Homeland Security issued a letter from Timothy Meadows, unit chief for the agency’s parole and law enforcement programs. His letter stated that permission for a deported veteran to enter the U.S. was “discretionary” and considered to be “an extraordinary measure, sparingly used only in urgent or emergency circumstances.”

In other words, the family’s request to bring Moreno into the U.S. for emergency health care was denied. Two days later, Moreno died in the Juárez hospital, his body overcome by a septic infection.

His ashes – cremation being less costly for the family – were returned to the country that he had served.

“It was the most devastating thing,” said daughter Valeria Moreno. “It was like, ‘OK, he’s worthless now, he’s dead, now he can come in.’”

The two women, Moreno’s only children, spoke at the memorial for their father March 10 at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, a sprawling 83 acres devoted to more than 50,000 military veterans. Moreno served from 1969 to 1972.

“I’m glad that he’s going to have the proper burial, and it’s an honor for him to be buried where he belongs,” said Valeria Moreno while standing in the shade of a tree at the cemetery, awaiting her father’s memorial service to begin. “But it’s a little too late.”

The family is angry at the U.S. government for denying their father life-saving medical attention, something they said he had already earned for his service, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his deportation.

Various requests for comment from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials went unanswered. A request for comment sent to Debra Rogers, director of the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative, was not returned.

‘They didn’t let you back in the country that you fought for’

Moreno was deported to Mexico in 2019, and his family acknowledges he had a criminal history – an attempted murder conviction in 1989 and two drug convictions in the early 2000s – for which he served his time, including 10 years for attempted murder.

But, indicative of the morass of problems with government record-keeping for immigrant service members, Moreno was not deported for those offenses. His daughter, Banesa Moreno Navarrete, said it wasn’t until 2013 that Moreno was deported. He had tried to get a passport and was flagged because he could not prove he was in the country legally.

Danitza James, executive director of El Paso-based Repatriate our Patriots, said it wasn’t uncommon for immigrants like Moreno to join the armed forces with false documents, which was relatively easy to do in the era before electronic records. And, she said, they were often led to believe that U.S. citizenship was applied automatically after serving, which is not the case.

Problems with identifying and tracking the number of deported veterans – and determining if they were wrongly deported – were exposed in a June 2019 U.S. Government and Accountability Office report that showed systemic problems in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s record-keeping.

Friends and family mourn Mario Arturo Moreno, a deported Army veteran, at a service at Fort Bliss National Cemetery on March 10 (Cosima Rangel / Puente Collaborative)

Using that GAO data as a springboard, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s office published a report in 2021 that showed that in cases where immigrant veterans were removed from the country, “the U.S. Government neglected to keep an accurate record of the Veterans our Nation deported.”

From 2013 to 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “issued removal for 250 Veterans and deported 92 Veterans,” the report found. It continues that “this number likely does not cover every Veteran that ICE encountered, as the agency inconsistently enforced its policy to annotate Veteran status in removal proceedings.” 

In February 2021, President Biden issued an executive order to help more eligible deported veterans return to the U.S. But only 50 veterans have been granted re-entry into the country, according to a report last month by the Center for Public Integrity.

Biden’s executive order spawned an initiative to address emergency situations like that faced by Moreno. The Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative brings together Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs “to identify and prioritize the return of current and former U.S. military members, and their immediate family members, who were removed from the United States,” specifically “to ensure they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled.”

“We went through that program,” said James with Repatriate our Patriots. “And even with that in the background, they didn’t even care. They just said no.”

Particularly distressing for the family was that Moreno – who could not get more advanced health care in Juárez because he could not afford it – would have been able to get it at the El Paso VA, James said.

“The VA doesn’t really ask you about citizenship or citizenship status,” she said. “If you can prove that you served in the military, then you are eligible.”

Since the inception of the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative in July 2021, 65 deported veterans have been allowed to return to the United States, according to a White House document.

Eight-year-old Damian Bijan mourns his grandfather, Mario Arturo Moreno, at the service at Fort Bliss National Cemetery on March 10 (Cosima Rangel / Puente Collaborative)

As Valeria Moreno stood behind the urn carrying her father’s ashes, she spoke to the people gathered at her father’s memorial. Choking back tears, she apologized to her dead father, telling him his family tried to bring him home, and castigated the U.S. government.

“They didn’t let you back in the country that you fought for,” she said. “I want to apologize because they let you die. They didn’t care for you. They didn’t think you were worth saving.”

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.