JUÁREZ, Mexico — The rising crest of the Franklins is a few miles from Ivan Ocon’s front porch. From there he can see those El Paso mountains, gray and timberless, framed by the telephone poles and power lines stretched across his narrow street in Juárez, where he’s lived the past five years.
“People ask me if it makes me sad to see that so close,” he said while seated on his porch looking out to the Star on the Mountain landmark in El Paso. “It doesn’t get me sad. That’s my home. I see it, and it keeps me focused and motivated. I need to make my way there again.”
Clean-shaven, bristling with energy and with oval dog tags around his neck, Ocon is a U.S. military veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and who received nine commendation, achievement and good conduct medals. All are neatly affixed to a wall next to an American flag, hung in a home in Mexico where the veteran lives.
But he is also a felon.
Ocon was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2007 for his role in kidnapping a victim “who had not attained the age of 18 years” from a home in El Paso. The victim was taken to Mexico, and Ocon made the ransom demands.
He pleaded guilty to kidnapping and aiding and abetting a kidnapping and another charge regarding his use of a firearm.
Ocon is one of more than half a million U.S. veterans who are foreign-born. He’s also among an unknown number of veterans deported — to Mexico or another country — because the U.S. government doesn’t keep track of how many have been removed, a fact verified by a 2019 GOA report on immigration enforcement on veterans.
For five years, he’s lived in Juárez, the latest pause of a grueling emotional journey that took Ocon from the camaraderie of the military service he loved to the outcast status of a felon ejected from America and walking destitute across an international bridge into an unfamiliar nation he had left as a child.
Demoted, discharged, imprisoned, then deported, Ocon today is reflective about how he fell so far so quickly. He is determined to find his way lawfully back to the U.S. to rebuild his life with his family. Most important to him, he said, is to reconnect with his daughter, who was 3 when he entered prison, 13 when he was deported, and in June turned 18.
His only hope is what is called an N-400 petition, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services application for naturalization of military veterans.
Until his application is resolved, he’s helping other deported veterans as the noncommissioned officer in charge of JMAC — the Joint Military Assistance Command, Juárez Detachment.
Ocon still follows the schedule and habits of a soldier. His clothes are ironed, his home is organized and clean, and military terms are injected often in his talk — “SOP” for standard operating procedure, “battle-rattle” for the wearing of full fighting gear.
But throughout his daily routine, the harsh irony of being a U.S. veteran deported to Mexico is on his mind.
“I guess I’m a citizen of Mexico. I was born here. But I don’t consider myself a citizen of Mexico. I reside here, but I belong in the United States with my family, with my daughter,” he said.
Born in Juárez in 1977, Ocon was raised in this Mexican city for the first seven years by his grandmother. His mother, a single mom needing to provide for him and an extended family, lived in the United States working multiple jobs. “I remember at my birthday parties I was always crying that my mother was not able to show up,” he recalled.
One day, when he was 7, that changed. His mother had married a man in the United States, and Ivan would become a legal permanent resident.
He remembers the day he left Mexico.
“One of my uncles packed me a little backpack with some clothes,” he said. “I remember being happy. I was going back home with my mom, and my family.”
He lived in El Paso for a few years, then moved with his family to Las Cruces. It was a 45-minute drive away, but it had a different culture from El Paso, he said. “They could tell I was not from there. … It was hard. I got picked on a lot because I couldn’t speak English.”
He graduated from Oñate High School in 1996 and shortly after joined the military.
When a recruiter asked why, Ocon said, “I told him, ‘To kill for my country and die for my country if need be.’ And he said, ‘Well, you might do that.'”
Stepping into a soldier’s life was a perfect fit, he said.
“I went from here,” he said, holding his hand low, “to up here,” he said, holding his hand high. “Mental-wise, it did me good. I loved it.”
‘Ready for war’
His first duty station was at Fort Lewis, Washington — a place where he was determined to stand out.
His first opportunity was during an Army “muster alert,” a surprise order for the platoon to quickly appear for roll call.
“I was a brand-new soldier, a private with no rank, lowest on the totem pole. I was nothing, but I wanted to excel, all I wanted to be was a hard-charging soldier,” he said. “So I show up, all painted up, I painted my face in camo. Out of a hundred and fifty people, I’m the only one with my face painted, so I stand out like a sore thumb,” he said, acting out the scene.
“The first sergeant comes to the front of the formation, and he’s looking around, then he sees me, and I see him staring.”
Ocon reenacted the scene, as he recalled, between him and the first sergeant:
“Company attention! First platoon, third-rank, third soldier! Who the (expletive) are you?”
“First sergeant! Private Ocon! First sergeant! Hooah!”
“Private Ocon, why in the hell are you like that?”
“First sergeant! SOP of muster alert, first paragraph said be ready for war and I’m ready for war in full battle-rattle! First sergeant! Hooah!”
After a moment, Ocon said the first sergeant shouted:
“Company! From now on every time we have muster formation you come looking like that soldier! Fall out!”
Laughing, Ocon added: “Oh man, I made so many enemies that day.”
Ocon earned his Air Assault Wings, then was flown to Jordan to help protect the U.S. allies during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I was part of the QRF, the quick reaction force. We slept with our rifles, with our M-16s,” he said. “I loved being deployed, being out there on the field, patrolling, that was me, that was my life, that’s what I wanted to be doing. And then the war was over, and they sent us back home.”
He returned to Fort Bliss, and his life in the military would soon fall apart.
Ocon — the soldier always ready to step up — broke character and refused a direct order.
“They wanted me to do a funeral detail. And I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ They said it was a direct order, and I didn’t do it.”
Ocon had been a part of funeral details before, and he said they affected him deeply, pushing depression onto him.
“War itself does not bother me; I’ll gladly do guard duty, anything that is needed, but when you have to present the flag to the family, and you see the family crying, that for me is heartbreaking,” he said. “I had to do that nine times. … I traveled to four states burying veterans and soldiers. …
“I volunteered to join the military, and I volunteered for every detail, for everything, and when I came back from deployment, I said, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to do that anymore.’ ”
Angry and depressed about being forced to perform funeral details, Ocon said, he started drinking more. Then, at a party in Las Cruces, he smoked some marijuana. When he tested positive for drug use, his military career was over.
“When they demoted me, and said I was kicked out, my whole life fell apart. I went to see the company commanders, the battalion commander, all the commanders were seated in front of me, and they’re reading me Article 15, telling me that I am being demoted and separated from the military,” he said. “I broke down in tears. I did not want that.”
Ocon left the military, and lost his identity, he said, and fell into self-destruction. “My purpose for years was to wake up and be a great soldier. That was my purpose, every day, every day. I was basically going through a withdrawal from missing the military, missing the structure.”
Then came his conviction and prison.
Prison survival, for him, was dependent on his military training. “Adapt, overcome and evade. Just that mentality. If I did not have that mentality, I really don’t know how it would have gone,” he said.
Then, another chance visited Ocon. His prison, the Federal Correctional Institution in Beaumont, Texas, had a contract to provide a service to the U.S. military. Ocon jumped at the chance.
“I was sewing military pants for the soldiers that the prison contract supplied. This brought the military back to me. … Even though I wasn’t out there with them, I was dressing my brothers. And that really changed my life. It brought pride back.”
Ocon served nine years of his 10-year sentence; some time was reduced for good behavior.
He notes that he made major mistakes but that he has served his sentence.
He tried petitioning for the N-400 naturalization right out of prison, but that was denied.
“They pushed the papers to the side, and said, ‘His service doesn’t matter. Good luck in Mexico.’ ”
“My service doesn’t matter?” Ocon said, visibly frustrated. “That’s a double knife to the chest. I’m looking forward to that day, the day I can come back to my country and say, ‘Yes, my service does matter.’ ”
Until then, he’s continuing to help fellow deported veterans, serving as the director of the Deported Veterans Support House in Juárez.