EL PASO, Texas — Frank De La Cruz’s to-do list for September wasn’t too different from the goals of many other Texas military veterans navigating life through a pandemic and economic uncertainty. He needed to renew his ID with Veterans Affairs, send out job applications and, time permitting, look for a reliable used car. He also needed to register to vote.
None of those things seemed possible just a few weeks ago for De La Cruz, 51. For years, he’s been living in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, after being deported twice following driving while intoxicated arrests. He said he didn’t even know he wasn’t a citizen before he was deported.
But on Sept. 9, after years of working odd jobs in Juárez while his wife and three children lived in El Paso, U.S. immigration officials had a surprise for him: They were going to let him return to the country where he’d lived since he was 6 years old, the Texas Tribune reported.
De La Cruz is one of a small number of deported veterans who have been allowed to return to the U.S. The Washington Post reported last year that there are more than 2,000 deported veterans still living abroad. But that’s just an estimate because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t have a policy to identify military veterans it encounters during deportation proceedings, according to a 2019 study by the Government Accountability Office.
The number of deported veterans applying for naturalization has dropped since 2017, and the number approved declined from 7,303 in fiscal year 2017 to 4,309 the following fiscal year, the report found.
For noncitizens, offenses ranging from entering the country illegally or overstaying a visa to being convicted of an aggravated felony or violating gun laws can lead to deportation. And veterans aren’t immune to deportation if they’re not U.S. citizens.
Texas lawmakers have for years tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation to help deported veterans. U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, has twice introduced legislation to repatriate deported veterans, but the legislation died in both 2017 and 2019. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, has also raised the issue and publicly supported De La Cruz.
De La Cruz’s attorney, Jennie Pasquarella, said her client’s good fortune was made possible by a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Florida case, Leocal v. Ashcroft, that took driving while intoxicated off the list of crimes that blocked deported immigrants from the chance at naturalization.
“That meant that because he served in wartime, which is a provision that allows for people to naturalize, he was allowed to naturalize,” said Pasquarella, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who was introduced to De La Cruz in 2016 during an ACLU project aimed at helping deported veterans. Pasquarella stayed in touch with De La Cruz and agreed to represent him free of charge.
“There are people out there like Frank who are eligible for some relief and have avenues to come home, and our hope is that we can help everyone who is in that situation,” she said.
De La Cruz was born in Ciudad Juárez, and his family migrated to El Paso legally when he was 6 in search of better economic opportunities in Texas. He graduated from an El Paso high school in 1989, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving a tour during the Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s. At that time, De La Cruz was a legal permanent resident.
He said drinking became a habit to alleviate the pressure of being at war — a habit he couldn’t kick after he left the Navy. “I didn’t know how to cope with it, and drinking was a way out,” he said.
He was honorably discharged and returned to El Paso, where he joined the Army National Guard and worked part time at the VA and as a refrigeration technician.
Then he got his first DWI in 1998, and the federal government deported him to Ciudad Juárez.
“I never realized I could get deported. ‘… I was in the military — they can’t deport me.’ That was my thinking.”
He spent seven years in Juárez working odd jobs and laying low, he said. Then in 2005, he said he crossed the border illegally with the help of a smuggler after his mom became sick. He lived in Texas illegally until he was arrested again for DWI and deported once more in 2010.
De La Cruz said he worked jobs at factories and in construction, and his wife and children lived with him there for about five years. But cartel violence in Mexico and long wait times to cross the bridge to go to school forced his family back to El Paso.
“My family didn’t want to go to Juárez [to visit] anymore because of the crime,” he said. “I was like a hobbit. I’d go to work and then come home and stay inside.”
Pasquarella and De La Cruz filed his citizenship application in 2016.
He said everything changed when he went to the international port of entry for what he thought would be a routine meeting with U.S. immigration officials about his case. Instead, they told him that his request had been approved. And earlier this month, he became a citizen after a quick and private swearing-in ceremony at the El Paso port of entry.
“I was surprised. I wasn’t prepared for it,” he said.
De La Cruz said it’s up to veterans to put in the work to get back to the U.S.
“We’re taught not to quit in the military. You keep grinding at it,” he said. “Jenny [Pasquarella] helped a lot, but you got to make the phone calls, you got to want it bad enough.”
De La Cruz said he’s determined to make the best of his opportunity to live in the U.S. again, despite the mental whiplash he’s experienced the last few weeks. One of his priorities was bringing to Texas his dog Luna, who he joked was also an American citizen because she was born in El Paso.
But it all happened so quickly that he didn’t even get to grab his uniform or other keepsakes. He’s since been back to collect a few items but acknowledges the adjustment will take time. His youngest son, 17, is studying remotely, and De La Cruz said he’s been slacking off a bit with his schoolwork. But De La Cruz isn’t sure how heavy handed he should be.
“I can’t just jump in there, it’s a slow process,” he said. “But it’s something I am dealing with.”
In less than a month as a U.S. citizen, De La Cruz has found a job as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician. And he says he would enlist again again if he could.
“Despite everything that I went through, it was heartbreaking, but I would [serve] all over again,” he said. “You know why? My family is American.”