Cesar Lopez was returning to the United States from a vacation in Costa Rica in October 2012 when he was detained by immigration authorities at the airport in Houston.
Lopez was born in Mexico but had been living in the United States since he was 3 or 4. He was not then, nor is he now, an American citizen. But at the time he was taken into custody in Houston he was a permanent legal resident of the United States and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
The problem was a conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute following a traffic stop in 2000 near Tucumcari. Taking the advice of an attorney, he accepted a one-year deferred sentence and paid a fine after being assured the offense would be erased from his record after a year provided he did not violate probation.
But the officials in Houston told him that such offenses get removed from the records of American citizens but not those of non-citizens. He was deported to Mexico in February 2013.
Three weeks later he crossed the border back into the United States and is now living in Las Vegas, Nev., an outspoken advocate for the pardon of deported veterans such as himself and subject to arrest at any time.
“But if they deport me again, it’s going to be in my uniform in front of TV cameras,” Lopez said in a phone interview. “I’m an American in my heart, and I’m a Marine.”
A petition for pardon
Lopez will speak in support of pardoning deported veterans during a Feb. 11 presentation at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, 202 Harvard SE. The program, sponsored by the Donald & Sally-Alice Thompson (Albuquerque) Chapter of Veterans for Peace, will also include the showing of “Exiled,” a short documentary film about the plight of two honorably discharged veterans deported to Tijuana, Mexico.
Lopez and others deported from this country, veterans and non-veterans, since 1996 are subject to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act passed that year in response to what was viewed as a rapidly growing illegal immigration problem. The act expanded the list of offenses considered “aggravated felonies” for which people could be deported. Deportations usually happen after the person has completed jail time or satisfied other court-imposed penalties and often break up families and exile people to countries they have not lived in since they were toddlers.
“My feeling is they have gone too far with deportation period,” said Charles Powell, 76, an Air Force veteran and president of the Albuquerque Chapter of Veterans for Peace. “But with veterans especially because they have made that commitment to their country and were willing to put their life on the line for their country.”
Service by non-citizens in the American military does not entitle them to citizenship, but, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, military service may offer an expedited path to naturalization and citizenship.
Powell said crimes committed by veterans that result in their deportation are sometimes linked to their military service. He said that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, drug addiction and alcoholism lead to risky and sometimes unlawful behavior.
For a couple of weeks now, Powell has been collecting signatures for a petition that asks Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to pardon U.S. military veterans deported because of New Mexico criminal convictions.
“The thing about petitions is they serve as a good education device,” Powell said. “They teach people about things they did not know previously.”
Powell and Lopez visited the then newly elected Lujan Grisham’s transition team in November to present the case for pardons and hope to meet with the governor personally when Lopez is in New Mexico next week.
Lopez, 45, grew up on the streets of central Los Angeles. He joined the Marines right out of high school and was stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. He admits he was a discipline problem, unaccustomed to bowing to authority.
“I used to be a very hard-headed kid,” he said. “I’d get written up for being late to formation. I started getting into trouble.”
He served with the Marines from 1993 to 1995 before agreeing to an other than honorable discharge because he did not fully understand the implications of leaving the service with something less than an honorable discharge. Just like he did not know his possession with intent to distribute conviction would not be removed from his record as he had been told.
“Being poor and uneducated is the biggest mistake of my life,” he said.
The possession with intent to distribute conviction, by the way, wasn’t just for a couple of joints. Lopez had 20 pounds of pot in the car. He is quick to own up to his mistakes. But he says he and other non-citizen veterans like him have paid the price meted out by the justice system and do not deserve to be banished from the country they served.
Lopez tried to turn his life around. He said he earned a computer-science degree from Western Technical College in El Paso and worked to help troubled teenagers and homeless veterans as a social worker in Las Vegas, Nev. Lopez said he had plans to open his own solar panel installation company when he was taken into custody in Houston.
“When I got deported my (two) daughters were teenagers,” he said. “That’s the time when they need a father the most. That’s why I came back into this country.”
Now that his daughters are college students in El Paso, he is risking arrest to push for the rights of veterans deported from this country, the number of which he estimates to be between 250 and 500. He went to Washington, D.C., in 2016 to discuss pardons with members of Congress and is planning a caravan to Washington in April to continue that effort.
“I’m still a ghost,” he said of his life in this country. “I don’t exist. I don’t have IDs. I don’t have anything. I can’t even get a job waiting tables. If you join the military, you are an American, a patriot. You are doing something that 99 percent of people born here are not willing to do.”