A Mexican-born veteran who was twice deported and waged a years-long fight to return to the U.S. became an American citizen Friday in a ceremony in San Diego.
"The citizenship only validates what I’ve always felt in my heart: I’m a proud American patriot," Hector Barajas-Varela said to cheers from supporters and veterans groups outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) building.
Barajas-Varela was sworn in at a private naturalization ceremony surrounded by loved ones, a move made possible by Gov. Jerry Brown’s pardon of a criminal offense last year.
"I want to thank Gov. Jerry Brown for this historic pardon, which was my biggest barrier," Barajas-Varela said. "He showed that California has upheld its values and is supportive of immigrants like me."
Barajas-Varela was departed in 2004 after serving two years in prison for shooting at an occupied vehicle in 2002. He made his way back to the U.S. before being deported again in 2010.
Last month, Barajas-Varela learned he was granted U.S. citizenship. Brown removed a major obstacle to citizenship by pardoning him last year, noting his distinguished military service and advocacy work.
"I'm in the United States," Barajas-Varela said in a Facebook Live post shortly after crossing the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a crowd of friends, community members and other deported veterans gathered for a sendoff outside the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, which Barajas-Varela founded in 2013.
"All the brothers that are still here, you know, we have the motto of 'leave no man behind.' But, I told you guys I wish could take you – take you guys with me." Barajas-Varela said choking back tears, to which a man in the crowd replied, "we’ll get there, buddy."
He then departed Tijuana en route to downtown San Diego, where he would pledge his allegiance to the U.S. and be sworn-in as an American citizen.
During his eight years living in Tijuana, Barajas-Varela worked directly with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in San Diego to launch the Deported Veterans Support House health clinic.
Through the clinic, he helped dozens of veterans receive benefits, including psychological exams, employment counselors and help from lawyers.
"My biggest dream is to see all my brothers and sisters go home to the country they’re willing to die for," Barajas-Varela said Friday.
He is believed to be the first deported veteran that has been granted U.S. citizenship. His story is bringing hope to other deported veterans and veterans stateside facing deportation proceedings.
"Now finally we can say 'yes,' he has opened the doors for the other veterans," said Manuel Valenzuela, a veteran facing possible deportation.
Valenzuela vowed to Barajas-Varela that he would make it to San Diego for his U.S. arrival, and made the trip from Colorado Springs to follow through on a promise he made nine years earlier when the two first met.
Valenzuela told NBC 7 after the ceremony the two will go to church together.
Barajas-Varela was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and arrived in the U.S. with his parents when he was 7. He grew up in the U.S. and enlisted in the Army in 1995. He received numerous accolades and awards, including the Army Commendation Medal and Humanitarian Service Medal.
He was honorably discharged in 2001.
Following his service in the Army, Barajas-Varela said he had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He became addicted to drugs, and in 2002, was sentenced to two years in prison and nearly a year in detention after he pleaded no contest to shooting at an occupied vehicle.
Once released, he was placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who deported him to Nogales, Sonora.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Barajas-Varela said that he was unable to adjust to life in Mexico, a country he was unfamiliar with, and made his way back into the U.S. before being deported again in 2010.
Barajas-Varela is eager to change his circumstances this time around.
"I’m an all-American patriot I proudly serve my adopted country as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. I believe I am no less of an American because of the mistakes that I’ve made," he said Friday.
He plans to serve with the Deported Veterans Support House for one more year before returning to his family. He wants to go back to school, continue supporting the community and put his daughter through college.