EL PASO, Texas – A group of deported veterans living in Mexico are opening up about uprooting their lives and leaving the place they used to call home.
At one point, they all had green cards, served in the U.S. military, got convicted of a crime and were then deported.
“Yes, we committed a crime. We understand. But we paid our debt to society,” said Ivan Ocon, 41, a deported veteran.
Ocon was born in Juarez, Mexico, but moved to the United States when he was 7 years old and became a legal permanent resident.
“As soon as I graduated high school, basically, I said I’m going to serve my country,” Ocon said.
Ocon said he served in the U.S. Army for seven years, including some time in Iraq. He said after being honorably discharged, his life changed.
“I didn’t come back the same person once deployment finished and I came back to the (United) States. I started falling into depression, anxiety, lack of sleep,” Ocon said.
Ocon ended up getting into trouble.
“I knew of a crime that was being committed by a close member of the family, and I didn’t report it,” Ocon said.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while Ocon served a seven-year prison sentence for the crime, he was transferred to ICE custody in April 2015 and placed in removal proceedings. A year later, an immigration judge ordered him to leave the U.S.
Ocon has been living in Juarez with a group of veterans who were also deported for committing crimes. The veterans lean on each other for support and living in a place they call “The Bunkers.”
When Army veteran Darrell Mond, president of the nonprofit El Paso Veterans and Riders Association, heard about the group of deported veterans, he knew he wanted to help.
“We have an immigration attorney who’s volunteered their time to help,” Mond said.
Mond said if the nonprofit can’t help the veterans get their citizenship, he hopes to help them get their veteran benefits with the reality that not all will be coming back to the U.S.
“We’ve told some of these guys we are not going to be able to bring you home. What they did was horrific or so bad. They understand that,” Mond said.
Ocon still considers the U.S. his home. He hopes to one day be reunited with his family and friends.
“My daughter has been basically growing up without me. It’s all pictures, the phone, chat or whatever, but it’s not the same,” Ocon said.
ICE released the following statement:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans. Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an individual with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel.
ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate. ICE specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered along with other factors in the totality of the circumstances when deciding if prosecutorial discretion should be exercised. Still, applicable law requires ICE to mandatorily detain and process for removal individuals who have been convicted of aggravated felonies as defined under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”