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U.S. veterans deported to Mexico organize near border, look for a way back home

U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas in Tijuana, Mexico, in March 2014.

U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas in Tijuana, Mexico, in March 2014.  (2014 Getty Images)

When someone volunteers to serve in the U.S. military, the idea that they’d somehow will be punished by the country they are willing to die for seems virtually unthinkable.

But it’s not a matter of heroism for non-U.S. citizens, who risk getting booted out of the country if they are convicted of a felony, once they have served their prison term.

Chances are pretty good that their only way back home to America is after they've died.

I was 19 years old when I joined. I was so young I was just going with the flow. It didn’t occur to me to apply for citizenship.

- Felipe Ibarra, deported U.S. veteran

When it comes to Mexican-born deported veterans, many opt to stay in the border area — specifically in Tijuana, Rosarito or Otay, where this diverse community of former vets with a criminal record often end up spending the rest of their lives.

In 2013, veteran and convicted felon Hector Barajas founded the Deported Veterans Support House, also known as The Bunker, devoted to the needs of this displaced group of people, a lot of whom suffer from psychiatric issues due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Bunker offers everything from therapy to legal counseling through the ACLU, as well as help with housing, food, clothing and drug rehabilitation.

Additionally, the Bunker is working to help organize the deported men in their applications for voluntary humanitarian parole, which grants them a temporary permit to receive medical treatment at a VA hospital. The typically 30- to 90- day permit is issued to people otherwise inadmissible into the U.S. due to a compelling medical emergency.

“These are men who’ve served. They shouldn’t have to wait to die before getting the help they need. They served the country proudly,” said Barajas, who was convicted in 2001 for a shooting-related crime in which no one was injured. He spent two years in prison before being deported.

On July 8, a group of 10 veterans guided by Barajas’ organization will go to the San Ysidro border area in Tijuana and “turn themselves in” for humanitarian parole.

One of the men along for the ride is Vietnam veteran Andres de Leon, 72, who served in the military from 1967 to 1969. Leon, today a Tijuana resident, was deported in 2010 after an arrest for a felony conviction — he was caught selling heroin.

"I was sent to West Germany and then to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington,” Leon told Fox News Latino. “I got out and I was an addict. I've been clean and sober since 2007."

Leon, like many other Mexican U.S. vets, doesn't have family in Tijuana. He's too old to get a job, he said, so he relies on his family in California to send him money for rent and food. He's hoping the humanitarian parole event will help him reinstate his green card.

Immigrants have been enlisting to benefit from fast-track citizenship since 1775. After World War II, Congress acted to provide expedited naturalization to qualified non-citizens serving honorably in the armed forces, and in 2002 an executive order was issued to make non-citizens eligible for expedited citizenship.

But a large number of the undocumented men and women who enroll are uninformed and believe citizenship is automatically granted when they enlist. What they get, in fact, is legal residency or green card status.

“Unfortunately, many of these guys [veterans] never got around to getting their citizenship while they were enlisted. Many of them were told it happened automatically,” said Barajas.

Things took a dramatic twist with 1996 immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives grounds for deportation to any non-citizen resident who has an aggravated felony — including writing a bad check or getting into a bar room brawl.

“The problem is immigration laws are very complicated. But the government often makes mistakes,” said Margaret Stock, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and immigration lawyer who worked on Barajas’ case. “If veterans don't get expert attorneys they can be erroneously deported,” added Stock, currently running for Senate in Alaska as an Independent candidate.

Stock said Barajas, 39, was wrongly deported and is eligible to apply for citizenship and return to the U.S.

Then there’s the case of Felipe Ibarra, who served during the Gulf War from 1990 to 1992.

“I was 19 years old when I joined,” he told FNL. “I was so young I was just going with the flow. It didn’t occur to me to apply for citizenship,” he said.

In 1999, Ibarra was arrested for attempting to bring 100 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico. He served a year in prison and when he was released, he was literally driven to the U.S.-Mexico border and asked to walk across.

Ibarra will join Barajas and the group from the Deported Veterans House in seeking voluntary parole on July 8.

“We have to try. We’re not bad people, we just made bad choices,” Ibarra told Fox News Latino. “We did serve our country.”

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.