CIUDAD JUAREZ -- About 35,000 non-citizens are in the U.S. military. But some of those who served proudly have been deported to Mexico and other countries because they broke the law.
“They deported me for life,” said Arturo Quinonez, sitting in his living room in Ciudad Juarez. Hanging on the wall photos is one of Quinonez in his Navy uniform, next to a certificate showing he was honorably discharged.
He served eight years, including time in a conflict zone during the Balkan Wars.
“We were there enforcing a no-fly zone," he said. "We were the only ship there at that time."
His friend Juan Valadez joined the Navy in 2000.
“I joined the Navy as soon as I graduated high school," he said. "I was always in ROTC and all that stuff."
Valadez's time in the military included the years after the 9/11 attack.
“We were on an amphibious assault ship. I was off the coast of Yemen. We were doing special Ops right there,” he said.
Years later, the two men met in Mexico while working at a customer service call center where they got jobs making $100 per week answering complaints from U.S. cell phone customers. It was the first jobs they could find after being deported in 2007 from the U.S., the country they consider home.
“I’m banned for life -- can’t go back,” Valadez said.
He and other veterans are banished because they ran into trouble with the law after they got out of the military.
Valadez was convicted on drug charges in El Paso and spent two years behind bars.
“As soon as I got out, immigration was there to pick me up," he said. "They shackled me back up and took me to a detention center."
He was deported three months later.
Quinonez also spent time behind bars after he was caught smuggling marijuana across an international bridge.
“I was having money troubles, and yes, it was very easy money,” Quinonez said.
He spent two years in prison.
“I did jail time. I should have paid with that,” Quinonez said.
But green card holders who break the law face deportation.
“I’m not trying to excuse my crime," Valadez said. “I did the time, and basically, it’s a double punishment.”
No government agency tracks the number of veterans deported, but the organization “Banished Veterans” estimates at least 4,250 non-citizens who served in the U.S. military have been deported since 1996.
“We feel abandoned,” said Hector Barajas, one of the founders of the group, who now lives in Tijuana.
“I miss my family,” Barajas said. He has an 8-year-old daughter in California.
Veterans can return to U.S. soil in a coffin. Those who are honorably discharged are entitled to a military burial in the U.S.
Many veterans now living in Mexico choose border cities, so they can be close to their families in the U.S.
Quinonez’s wife and children often visit him on weekends.
He started a small maintenance business with skills he learned in the Navy, and drives around Juarez in a pickup truck with disabled veteran and American flag stickers on his window.
His dog tags hang from his rearview mirror.
“I’m still proud,” Quinonez said.