After a long battle with the broken U.S. immigration bureaucracy, Mauricio Hernandez Mata became a naturalized U.S. citizen Feb. 8 – decades after he earned the right with his honorable military service. The Army combat veteran, who served in Afghanistan, took the oath at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Office in San Diego accompanied by his wife, daughter, friends and fellow veterans.
“It’s been a long journey,” says Mata, who has been living in Tijuana since he was deported for drug possession and illegal re-entry convictions more than 10 years ago. “It’s definitely a win for all of the deported veterans, not just myself.”
It’s also been excruciating. “I’ve seen a lot of guys come home before me,” Mata says. “I’ve seen a lot of guys get their citizenship before me. There was a point I was ready to tell my lawyers to give up the good fight because it seemed like a never-ending battle.”
ALCU attorney Andres Kwon, who spent years helping Mata win his citizenship, agrees. “It shouldn’t have been this hard,” Kwon says. “But I’m relieved he will be recognized officially as a U.S. citizen at last.”
The American Legion, which has fought for foreign-born servicemembers and veterans to receive citizenship for more than 100 years, has called on the current administration to stop deporting veterans and military families, restore expedited citizenship for those who serve and repatriate former servicemembers who don’t have felony records.
Mata’s felony conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor. However, bureaucratic failures, broken promises and draconian immigration laws prevented him from obtaining citizenship long before he got in trouble with the law. He came to San Diego from Mexico with his mother when he was 7 and took the first step toward citizenship after his mother naturalized when he was 15. But the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service sat on Mata’s green card application until he was too old to qualify for what’s known as derivative citizenship.
The Army also failed to tell Mata he qualified for citizenship after he joined in 2000, a common experience among immigrants who sign up to serve. He reenlisted for a four-year-hitch while fighting in Afghanistan, but was nearly killed by knife-wielding muggers in San Diego in 2005. His injuries forced him to leave the Army a year later. He planned to reenlist after he recovered.
Instead, Mata struggled with PTSD, anxiety and depression and ended up behind bars for 18 months for possession of meth and a firearm. He was deported to Mexico in 2010. Unable to deal with the unfamiliar and violent environment and missing his family, he returned to California. He was caught, convicted of illegal reentry, served another 37 months in prison and was again deported in 2012. Mata met Hector Brajas, founder and director of the Deported Veterans Support House, in Tijuana two years later. Barajas, a twice-deported Army veteran, helped Mata apply for VA benefits and find legal help.
A federal appeals court ruling in 2021 appeared to clear the way for him to obtain the U.S. citizenship he should have received as a teenager. After the ruling, the federal government joined Mata’s attorneys in asking an immigration court to dismiss his 2009 deportation order, which an immigration judge did in September 2021. Mata returned to the United States on Feb. 14, 2022. And his felony conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor.
USCIS, however, subsequently rejected Mata’s application for derivative citizenship. Kwon appealed that decision. And Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigration rights for the ACLU of Southern California, simultaneously filed an application for Mata to receive his citizenship based on his honorable service. The federal government finally approved his citizenship application because of his military service, to which he had been entitled since completing basic training more than 20 years ago.
His fellow veterans are relieved. “I’m excited that he no longer has to worry about being removed,” says Barajas, who won his own citizenship case in 2018 and also is living in San Diego.
Even so, Barajas, Mata and other deported veterans face many other challenges after they return to the United States, including finding housing, health care and employment, obtaining official identification and clearing other hurdles. “When I started looking for places to rent, I hadn’t worked in the U.S. for 20 years and I didn’t have credit,” Barajas says. So he struggled to find a place to live even though he had a letter of financial support from a San Diego-based nonprofit called AdJoin vouching for his ability to pay his rent.
Kwon also is concerned about the lack of support for deported veterans who are finally allowed to come home. “Bringing deported veterans home has been a daunting task – one that we have increasingly been able to accomplish with the Biden administration,” Kwon says. Yet that’s not the end of the story.
“In many if not most cases, deported veterans have been banished for long periods of time – decades for many – and left without any support systems when they return,” he says. “This is where the federal government and the local governments can partner to create holistic support systems for repatriated veterans.” That includes help navigating the complicated process of obtaining VA benefits, accessing veterans housing support programs or getting military IDs and driver’s licenses, Kwon says.
For example, VA required Mata go through a process to verify he is eligible for a permanent 100% disability rating for his PTSD. That was granted in August, providing him with some financial support and access to medical care.
Mata isn’t finished with the immigration system. His wife, whom he met while living in Mexico, and his daughter – who was born there – are working to secure lawful permanent residence status. Once that’s accomplished, Mata’s daughter should be eligible for derivative citizenship given he is now naturalized, just as Mata should have received derivative citizenship from his mother when he was a child.
“You better have a thick skin for this,” Mata says of the long and grueling process. “You can’t work with emotions and let them get in your way because you’re going to get crushed by the system.”