Valente and Manuel Valenzuela are the definition of service.
As teens, the pair volunteered and were sent to fight in Vietnam.
The accolades earned for their service couldn’t overshadow their physical and mental ailments.
Fifty years later, they still fight, this time against their deportation notices.
The Valenzuela’s story isn’t uncommon, unfortunately, as thousands of American military veterans have been or are in danger of being deported because of misdemeanor offenses committed after completing their service.
The story is what piqued the interest of filmmaker John J. Valadez. He set out for seven years to create the documentary, “American Exile,” which is being broadcast under the Voces umbrella for PBS. It will premiere at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16, on New Mexico PBS and will stream on the PBS Video app. The program is part of its Veterans Day celebration.
“This is an underreported area,” Valadez says. “There was a lot of drama with their case, but there’s a bigger picture, which says something about the times in which we live.”
Valadez met the brothers in Colorado after one of his screenings.
“They told me their story of them being deported and I was skeptical because it didn’t sound like something U.S. did,” Valadez says. “I met with them the next day and they had all of their paperwork. Valente was awarded the Bronze Star for combat heroism. I started to think there is something going on here.”
For Valente Valenzuela, who has crippling PTSD, the anxiety of being under the constant threat of deportation is destroying his life.
Manuel Valenzuela, however, is determined not to give up without a fight.
Valadez followed Manuel Valenzuela, who is a grandfather and teacher of Tae Kwon Do, as he embarked on a cross-country road trip from his home in Colorado to Washington, D.C., to ask President Trump for an executive order ending the deportation of military veterans and their families.
Along the way, he meets other veterans impacted by deportation; people like Zahid Chaudhry, a Pakistani immigrant whose military injuries left him in a wheelchair and in chronic pain, and Olivia Segura, whose daughter was killed in the Gulf War. Her husband – a Gold Star father – developed a drinking problem after the devastating loss of his daughter, was pulled over by the police and has been incarcerated for three years awaiting deportation.
Valadez says during the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. saw the largest wave of immigration in its history.
Twenty-two million people, both with and without documentation, came into the country, mostly from Mexico and Latin America.
President Bill Clinton responded in 1996 by signing the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act. But the new law had unexpected consequences for veterans. With some 50,000 foreign nationals serving in the U.S. armed forces at any given time, and with over half a million foreign-born veterans living in the United States, many of them found themselves suddenly vulnerable to deportation.
The new law took away judicial discretion and banned judges from considering factors like service to country, family, medals of honor, disability due to military service, and longevity in the country. The law also made minor offenses like shoplifting, driving with an expired license or possession of marijuana deportable violations. Some veterans, like the Valenzuela brothers, had minor run-ins with the law decades ago, some committed serious offenses and served jail time, others were simply the victims of bureaucratic errors, but all became deportable. According to immigration scholars, before the 1996 law went into effect, there had never been an American military veteran deported. Today exiled veterans probably number in the tens of thousands, but because no government agency tracks deported veterans, the exact number is unknown.
But the voices of veterans facing deportation has finally been heard. On July 2, President Joe Biden, ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to immediately create a process for deported veterans and their families to return home to the United States.
Valadez got a first-hand account in witnessing a historic change.
“All these years and all of the stories that I’ve heard, it takes a toll,” he says. “In a sense it was all people of color that were being deported. The film reveals that we are at a moment where the national demographics are changing. If we work together and make proper moves, we can make change and show that we all belong.”