At a cemetery in Madera, flags mark the final resting places of the town’s sons and daughters who served in the military.
But 400 miles away, one of Madera’s own, Private First Class Andres De Leon, can’t even visit the site where he hopes to be laid to rest until he dies.
“I feel they did me wrong because I risked my life for Uncle Sam just so, at the end, I get deported,” De Leon said.
When De Leon was 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam. After serving for 12 years, two overseas, he was honorably discharged.
Now, at 72, De Leon lives in a small, one-bedroom house in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Tijuana, Mexico.
“I got no choice,” he told FOX40. “I have to stay here but I’m doing the best I can.”
The path that led De Leon to this point begins where his story will ultimately end, in Madera with his family.
De Leon’s sister, Elizabeth, worries about his health. He has type-2 diabetes.
“He wants to come home with his kids, his grandkids, his family,” she said. “It worries me very much that something might happen to my brother. I’m going to be torn apart.”
De Leon and his family moved to Madera legally when he was 12. His most trying battle wasn’t overseas; it was in the states, when his mother passed away.
“He would take my mom everywhere. When my mom passed away, that really pushed him to the edge,” Elizabeth told FOX40.
De Leon slipped into a deep depression. At 63, he became addicted to heroin and was eventually arrested for possession. He served nearly three years at Soledad State Prison until Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials visited him and told him he wouldn’t return home.
In 2009, and immigration judge ordered De Leon deported to Mexico – a country he hadn’t seen in more than 50 years.
“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it,” his son, Andres Jr., said. “I couldn’t believe they would deport a veteran with an honorable discharge.”
In Tijuana, De Leon has no friends or family. He spent his first few weeks homeless. He figured he was the only U.S. military veteran deported to Mexico until he met Hector Barajas.
“I basically opened up my doors to veterans that were deported,” Barajas said.
Barajas, a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborn, grew up in Los Angeles but was deported to Tijuana. He’s known dozens of deported veterans like himself and De Leon.
In 2013, he founded a support house for deported veterans.
“We believe none of these men should be left behind,” he said. “We talk about supporting the troops, let’s keep supporting these men. Treat these men with honor.”
There are an estimated 100,000 people deported from the U.S. living in Tijuana. No government agency keeps track of how many of those people are veterans. Hector thinks that there are a couple of hundred, if not more than a thousand.
Since he founded his support house, 15 veterans have come through for food, temporary housing and sometimes just to feel they belong.
De Leon has resigned to the possibility that he may never get to see the U.S. again, but both he and Barajas know they are entitled to a proper veteran’s burial.
“I’ve been told the only way I can return is dead. So, if dead is the only way I can return, I would like to be buried with my friends in the Catholic Cemetery in Madera, California,” De Leon said.
“Why would they honor us only when we die? They’re going to give an American flag to our families and say, ‘Thank you for your service to your country,'” Barajas told FOX40. “If you want to honor our men, let them get their treatment. Let them live with their families.”
Barajas and the De Leon family continue to fight for deported veterans’ rights. They hope the next time they see De Leon is on American soil – and not at a cemetery.
FOX40 News contacted ICE about De Leon. Citing privacy concerns, a spokesperson said the organisation couldn’t comment on any specific cases, but said immigration judges do take someone’s military service into account when deciding to deport someone.
In a statement, ICE said, in part:
“Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership.”