"Deported veterans?" she says.
There's a pause. "Huh."
Even at an organization like the VFW, even in a military town like San Diego, the news that former soldiers, sailors and marines are among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants deported every year can come as a surprise.
It came as a surprise to Hector Barajas, too, a former Army paratrooper. Barajas grew up in Compton, a greencard holder, after immigrating to the U.S. as a child; America was the only home he'd ever known. After two Army enlistments, it seemed ridiculous that he could be expelled from the country he served.
"Even the guys that were in immigration detention with me, they were like, Man, you were in the military. They're not going to deport you.' But after three or four days—," Barajas says as he grins and throws up his hands. "I thought it was a mistake. I was thinking, you know, I'm probably the only person in the military who's ever been deported. As soon as I tell them that I served, they're going to release me."
That was in 2004. Barajas now lives in Rosarito Beach, a few miles south of the international border, where he heads up an organization called Banished Veterans.
For vets in the Rosarito and Tijuana areas, common way stations for deportees, Banished Veterans is a temporary shelter, a place to get food and clothing during the initial transition. For the broader community of deported former service members, Banished Veterans serves as a legal advocacy group and a clearinghouse for information. It's still a young organization, up and running in earnest for only about a year. But, already, a white board on the wall lists the names of about 100 other vets, mostly in Mexico, but also Jamaica, Central America, Europe and elsewhere, who are looking for help.
All of the vets here were once legal residents, and all of them served in some branch of the military. Cast out after their service, they'd seem to represent an outrageous breakdown in the country's immigration system, until you learn one important fact: They're all ex-cons. Honorably discharged, some of them combat veterans, but nonetheless convicted criminals, they're the sort of deportees that confound the political debate over immigration and, as a result, don't really figure into it.
After leaving the Army in 2001, Barajas returned to his family's home in Compton, where he started "hanging out with some bad people." A few years later, he was convicted of discharging a firearm from a vehicle. No one was hurt in the incident, but it was serious enough to land him in prison for three years. Shortly before his release, he was flagged with an "immigration hold," transferred to a federal facility and then deported.
It was an ironic turn of events, because it was exactly the kind of thing he'd hoped to avoid when he joined the military. Barajas says he viewed the Army as a potential escape hatch in a neighborhood that otherwise presented only a narrow range of options, not many of them good.
"My parents are—." He trails off, and his voice is tight as he continues. "I wouldn't trade them for the world. And I wanted to get away from all that and do something to make them proud. When you get that nice, you know, tight uniform, people look at you differently," Barajas says.
He still has that uniform, crisply pressed, hanging on a hook near his cluttered workspace. But it doesn't do him much good anymore.
"There're a lot of organizations that won't touch us because we've gotten in trouble," Barajas says. Veterans groups don't necessarily see immigration advocacy as part of their mission, he says, and immigrant-rights groups don't view convicted criminals as a good public face for immigration reform. Even when people do hear about their stories, Barajas says, feedback isn't always positive.
"When there's an article, and you see those comment sections?" Barajas says, tilting his head back. "Ooh, man, they really tear us up. Some people are really nasty about it."
Authorities at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency don't track how many vets are deported every year. Immigration attorneys I spoke with in San Diego say the number is probably in the thousands, based on the percentage of non-citizens in U.S. prisons. Virginia Kice, a spokesperson for ICE, said prior military service is one factor that the agency considers when it prioritizes who should be removed, in line with an executive order issued by President Obama in 2011, and "senior leadership" in each field office has to sign off on removal when a vet is involved. It's not that they can't be deported, but they should be near the end of the list.
Without a master list to work from, the tactics Barajas uses to track down other deported vets resemble those of an investigative journalist or a private eye. He works sources in the community, who keep their eyes peeled for dazed-looking military types, and he lurks on Facebook, randomly pinging veterans to appeal for help. The walls of the group's headquarters, which is also Barajas' cramped apartment, are covered in maps and lists of names. Among the loose papers is a framed photo of Barajas' 7-year-old daughter, who still lives in the U.S.
The group got some media coverage last fall, including a story by KPBS, and people are starting to take notice. Barajas is busy planning a fundraiser for later this month. They recently qualified for tax-exempt status, a victory, but also a new challenge. Barajas has to put together bylaws and establish a governing board, and he hardly knows where to begin. It's been a learning experience. He's starting to get the hang of Google Docs.
"We're just winging it, with nothing, you know?" Barajas says, waving a hand at his cluttered workspace. "I mean, I'm using milk crates as office furniture, man."
Alex Murillo, a 35-year-old Navy veteran deported last year, is one of the guys Barajas tracked down. Murillo says he arrived in Rosarito "pretty much blind"—no job, no money and no contacts in the city. That is, until he found salvation at the Mongolian Grill.
"I got to talking to the waitress, and I basically gave her the short version, told her I was a vet," Murillo says.
She told him about Banished Veterans, but even before Murillo had a chance to reach out to them, Barajas and his partner in the organization, Fabian Rebolledo, also an army vet, showed up at his door.
Murillo grew up in Phoenix, arriving in the U.S. from Mexico as a toddler, and served in the Navy from 1996 to 2000. He was convicted of a nonviolent drug-trafficking offense in Illinois in 2009 and spent three years in prison.
Like other members of Banished Veterans, Murillo said he was under the impression that he'd be granted citizenship after his Navy service. Immigration lawyers say that while those who enlist have an easier time qualifying, citizenship isn't automatic. In recent years, they say, the military has been doing more to guide recruits through the process.
Craig Shagin, a Pennsylvania immigration attorney who's been providing the group with informal legal advice, says that it used to be very unusual to see veterans stripped of legal status.
"Prior to 1996, we didn't deport soldiers," Shagin says. "Now, these deportations are done routinely."
That was the year President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which vastly expanded the category of crimes that can lead to deportation. Today, virtually any offense with a sentence of more than year in prison can qualify as an "aggravated felony" and lead to removal.
Shagin says the 1996 law stripped judges of some of their options in sentencing, making it harder to weigh factors like military service. Now, discretion is exercised mostly at the enforcement level. But ICE officials can't change a sentence or rescind a deportation order; they can only move veteran convicts down the priority list for removal.
For Shagin, the issues at play for Banished Veterans couldn't be more profound. What does it mean to be an American? And what does the nation owe those willing to fight on its behalf?
"Loyalty is a two-way street," Shagin says, "and if you feel that these people owe you the loyalty to be subject to the draft, as many were after they perform that service, why should they be thrown out?" When they joined the service, all the men in Rosarito swore an oath to serve and protect their country, Shagin says, and that oath wasn't conditional.
"They may lose their freedom," Shagin says. "But one thing that should never be taken away from them is the right to live in the country they defended."
Augustin Garcia, or Auggie, as he prefers to be called, might exemplify that mismatched loyalty. With his Padres cap and salt-and-pepper stubble, Garcia looks like the kind of retired Navy guy you might see touring the U.S.S. Midway with his grandkids some weekend.
Drafted into Vietnam, Garcia served two tours on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier before returning to civilian life. Nearly 20 years later, he was convicted of a nonviolent drug-trafficking offense and spent six years in prison. He was deported in 1999.
"When I first got here, my Spanish wasn't even very good," Garcia says with a sheepish grin. "People would say, You're from the U.S., huh?'" he laughs. "They still say that."
Barajas has a pretty full plate these days. The group's busy trying to organize a "private bill" for its members, part of an informal, little-known process that can grant immigrants a reprieve from deportation orders. To make it happen, they'll have to convince a senator or member of Congress to take up their cases personally, which would mean looking past their mistakes. In the meantime, he's busy fielding calls from reporters and hounding new arrivals for their paperwork. Smoothing conflicts, too: While I'm there, he pauses our interview to mediate a dispute over a donated bed.
As we wrap up our interview, I ask Barajas if he still holds hope. He's been in Mexico for years now, and he's exhausted all but the longest of legal long-shots under current law. Does he honestly believe he'll make it back home? He stares at the floor for moment before answering.
"I believe in my country," he says. "And I do still consider it my country. You know, every country has issues; every country has its problems. But in the U.S., if there's an injustice, if it's the right case, they'll change laws, you know? The American public will back it. So, I just—yeah." He shrugs, nodding slightly.
"I believe in my country. That's it."