Deported Vietnam Veteran Still Considers Himself American Patriot
NUEVO PROGRESO – Imagine laying your life on the line for the United States of America, coming home from war and then getting deported. That's the reality for many U.S. veterans.
They are left with no Veteran Affairs benefits, no Social Security and no legal means to even visit the country they fought to protect.
Sixty-eight-year-old Jose Maria Martinez, a Vietnam veteran living in Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas, Mexico, is one of them.
“I love the United States tremendously. I would go to war for it again if necessary because my children and grandchildren are there,” he said.
Martinez served in combat in Vietnam, putting his own life in danger. He's got the paperwork and the ribbons to prove it.
“Any ribbon that you see with a ‘V’ on it, means it's worn for valor in combat,” he said fondly.
Martinez grew up in Brownsville. His parents brought him to U.S. with a green card when he was seven. As soon as he was old enough, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to war.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said.
Martinez was told serving in the military would earn him U.S. citizenship.
He was honorably discharged in 1972, but the paperwork he received upon his discharge from service showed two check marks in the “Yes” box for U.S. citizenship.
“My DD214 stated ‘born in Mexico, discharged as U.S. citizen.’ So I was under the impression I was a U.S. citizen. Hell, I was a registered Republican,” he said.
In 1997, Martinez got into trouble with the law. He was caught smuggling bundles of marijuana through the Sarita checkpoint and was sentenced to prison.
“I did my five years,” he said. “I paid my debt to society as far as I’m concerned.”
Martinez learned he was not a U.S. citizen after he'd served his time. He never filed to become a citizen and said he was never told he had to. So his second punishment for the smuggling charge was deportation.
“They took away my VA rights, third punishment. Then when I turned of age 62, for my Social Security – because I put 30 years into Social Security – they declined. Well, they approved, but couldn't give it to me because I was deported. So I’ve been punished four times for the same crime,” he explained.
Martinez regrets breaking the law.
“I'm here because I screwed up,” he said.
He'd like a second chance from the country he loves.
He's not the only veteran in this predicament. Congressman Vicente Gonzalez has made contact with deported U.S. veterans in 36 countries around the world.
“We've deported hundreds of them, maybe thousands,” he said.
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“When you're 18-years-old, you're sitting out in the desert in war; the last thing you're thinking about is filling out immigration documentation,” he said.
Gonzalez is pushing a bill that would stop the deportation of veterans and bring home many of the ones already deported.
The bill would allow some deported veterans back into the U.S. and make veteran status a question asked at deportation proceedings.
Gonzalez said Pres. Donald Trump is on board with the bill. He brought up the topic with the president at a private dinner at the White House.
“He agreed immediately that it was wrong and we needed to do something about it immediately,” Gonzalez said.
People deported for crimes like murder, rape, child sexual assault or terrorism would not qualify for repatriation.
Gonzalez said the vast majority would qualify. He said the crimes most veterans get deported for are related to drugs and alcohol.
“They come home with PTSD,” he said. “As you know we've lost thousands of veterans to suicide in recent years. And they begin self-medicating. Using drugs or alcohol and find themselves in a substance abuse problem and end up in some trouble.”
Martinez yearns to be back in Texas, but he's built a comfortable life in Mexico.
His apartment is less than a mile from the border with the country he loves. Inside, he keeps more reminders of his allegiance to the U.S.
He hopes one day he can go back to the U.S. and take the grandchildren he's never met to see the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I've got from a colonel to a lieutenant, to lieutenant general, to private, to corporal, to sergeants on there,” Martinez said with a tear in his eye while gazing upon a painting of the memorial.
Martinez isn't holding his breath waiting for a second chance. Instead, he will continue living his life and run his business in Mexico, just steps from the U.S. border.