Originally Published by The Star News
Most of the California State Assembly Veterans of the Year travel to Sacramento to accept their honors. The 2017 honoree from Assembly District 80 was not legally allowed to make the trip to the capital.
Deported U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas-Varela was recognized this year for his activism as founder of “The Bunker”, his Tijuana home where he provides shelter and assistance to other deported U.S. military veterans. The Veteran of the Year award is a long standing tradition and Assembly Members personally select honorees for each of their districts.
“[Barajas] has done a ton of work to alleviate stress for a lot of other veterans who served honorably and have been deported,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, District 80’s Assembly Person who named Barajas this year’s honoree. “He’s managed to turn a personal tragedy into something positive.”
Barajas was born in Mexico and moved to Compton, Calif. with his family at 7 years old. He became a legal resident at 15 and enlisted in the Army at 17. He served two stints and was honorably discharged. After his 2002 arrest and conviction for allegedly firing a gun at an inhabited car, Barajas served more than a year in prison and was deported to Mexico upon his release.
Convicted criminals who are deported from the U.S. are often permanently exiled, and Barajas has dedicated himself as an activist for fair treatment of deported veterans.
A pardon issued by Gov. Jerry Brown in April to Barajas and 2 other deported veterans now makes it possible for Barajas to reopen his immigration case, said Gonzalez Fletcher.
Gonzalez Fletcher played a key role in pushing Assembly Bill 386 through the state legislature by unanimous vote in May. AB 386 allows deported veterans with strong ties to California to apply for state veteran assistance funding to receive legal aid for re-entering the U.S.
“He made some mistakes, but he served honorably and was willing to do what 99 percent of Americans are not willing to do – give his life for all of our freedom,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, about Barajas. Veterans are often given special assistance, and legal services should be included in that regardless of immigration status, she added.
Deported veterans like Barajas are not guaranteed re-entry into the U.S. but AB 386 is their first step.