Presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks to a large crowd of potential voters during a June campaign stop at the Doolittle Community Center in Las Vegas.
But her speech is interrupted by Las Vegas resident Cesar Lopez, who once lived in Harris’ home state of California. His voice grows louder from the middle of the crowd.
“We need someone who will bring our veterans back,” he shouts, before quickly explaining that several hundred deported veterans are unable to enter the country that they risked their lives defending. The crowd breaks into applause, and Lopez continues: “Are you going to bring them back?”
This isn’t his first stop on the campaign trail. Just this year, 45-year-old Lopez has approached Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Seth Moulton, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, ex-HUD Secretary Julián Castro and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. He usually starts by calling out to them from the crowd and then aims for a one-on-one conversation after the event. His goal is to hold them accountable to one promise: Bring his brothers home.
“We’re asking the presidential candidates if they’re willing to support the repatriation of the veterans they have been deporting and to stop the deportation of those who already have been deported,” Lopez explained.
“Happy Fourth of July, and remember you are never alone. We honor our veterans. You are an important part of America,” Warren said, giving a thumbs-up next to Lopez.
Other candidates have offered similar responses. Moulton, a veteran himself, gave a simple “yes” when Lopez asked him about pardoning veterans who have been deported during a Las Vegas campaign stop. Harris, meanwhile, pointed to a policy platform.
“To address the question that was asked, part of what I rolled out just this week is that I’m prepared to take executive action on this issue,” Harris continued, speaking on a policy expansion that would protect the rights of DREAMers, parents, spouses, siblings, and veterans from deportation.
Although the exact number is unknown, the American Civil Liberties Union has documented almost 250 cases of deported veterans living in 34 countries. A study done by the ACLU highlights the lives and experiences of many of them. (People who aren’t United States citizens can enlist in the military, but they must have a permanent resident card, live in the United States and speak, read and write English fluently.)
Lopez has been advocating for deported veterans for seven years. Before hitting the campaign trail, he went to Congress twice to speak in favor of bills that would stop the deportations of veterans who have committed nonviolent crimes and allow those who have been deported to come home. The experiences haven’t exactly thrilled him, mostly because he sees Congress as a governing body that gives many empty promises with little action in return.
“Nothing passes. Everything gets stuck on committee. It doesn’t even leave the committee that they get sent to, and that’s what bothers me,” he said.
He advocates from his own experience as a deported Marine veteran.
Lopez’s family moved from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, when he was 3 years old. At 18, he enlisted in the Marines because he felt the country had given a lot to his family, including saving his mother from the life she was destined to have in Mexico, raising four children by herself.
“I grew up watching her work all the time, two jobs and everything, but I was so grateful to the nation,” said Lopez, who saw it as his responsibility to give back. He served in the Marines for two years before a general discharge in 1995 from write-ups he received after bar fights or talking back to platoon leaders.
Lopez said the transition back to civilian life was tough. He explained that Marines are trained to kill while in the service, then are thrown back into everyday society without counseling or help reintegrating.
“You’re a hyped-up killing machine,” he said.
The qualities that he was often commended for as a Marine — physical strength and daring — aren’t recognized by a population adhering to a different set of rules.
Five years after his discharge, Lopez was convicted of a felony marijuana charge. The judge sentenced him to 18 months of probation. He served his time and started working as an electrician and air-conditioning technician in Southern Nevada.
He describes his time in the Marines as both the best thing and the worst thing that has ever happened to him. It was the best, he said, because the military has given him so many “brothers” that not only will be there for him any day he calls, but are willing to give away their lives for the other. The worst part, however, was being subject to racism in his command that he didn’t know how to deal with at the time.
Non-citizens can enlist in the military as long as they have legal status in the United States, such as a temporary visa or green card. To be naturalized, one must apply through the U.S department of Homeland security. The deported veterans spoken to said they either started but didn’t finish the process, or was ill-informed the process applied to them in the first place.
“An 18-year-old kid with no education, I believed what they told me,” Lopez said. He thought being sworn into the U.S. Marines granted him protection. Many years later, he was proved wrong.
A dozen years after his conviction, Lopez was coming home from a vacation to Costa Rica in 2012 when he was stopped in the George Bush International Airport in Houston where he was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Las Vegas. When he went through the airport’s immigration line, he was asked whether he had committed a crime in 2000. When he said yes, he was told he would be deported.
Feeling like he was about to be in trouble, he called his wife and told her to find a lawyer. Lopez was detained for about four months in Houston, Texas, and then released to Mexico.
With no family members in Mexico and two daughters back home, Lopez didn’t know where to turn. After three weeks, he decided to illegally re-enter the country, a five-day and four-night trek.
“I was not going to let my daughters grow up without their father in America. That’s for sure,” Lopez said, adding that he feels blessed to have seen his girls grow up and earn college degrees.
“The children are the ones that suffer the most,” Lopez said. He knows other deported veterans with children who suffered due to the split ties between their parents.
Alex Murillo, 40, is one of those parents. His family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, from Rosarito, Mexico when he was a baby. Like Lopez, he served in the military directly out of high school. He had a plan to serve his country and then attend college. He was honorably discharged from the Navy after serving four years from 1996 to 2000 in operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
“I went back to Phoenix and went about my life the best I could, trying to take care of my kids,” Murillo said during a phone interview. “It’s not a secret that soldiers return from their tour of duty and get in trouble sometimes.”
Murillo was convicted of possession of marijuana in 2009. The offense landed him in jail for 37 months, followed by his immediate deportation to a place he didn’t know.
“I have one charge that I’m deported for and it’s cannabis, a product that is being used daily by millions and millions of Americans legally,” said Murillo of the drug that is legalized in 11 states.
He laments a phone call with his father when he was overseas, letting him know about his upcoming citizenship interview. Murillo told his dad that his squad leader was going to take care of it, and that he couldn’t come home because he was away serving. Then, he could hardly picture what was to come.
“Why is it that we get in trouble as veterans, we do our time, but then we get kicked out?” asked Murillo. “We get exiled from our country. We don’t ever get to go back home to our families like any other veteran. That’s not right.”
The effect on Murillo’s family was severe.
“My kids were always waiting for me,” Murrillo said. He spoke highly of his four children, three of whom had recently moved to Mexico to live with him after struggling with homelessness and opioids.
“I got them over here, finally,” Murillo sighed. “They needed their dad.”
Murillo works at an English call center and is a flag-football and basketball coach at a local high school. He describes his life in Mexico, reunited with his kids, as good.
“On the weekends, I take them skateboarding. We’ll go to the beach. I try to stay active,” he said.
Yet he dreams of returning to Arizona. It’s the reason he doesn’t stop calling members of Congress and advocating for himself and fellow deported veterans. He calls the campaign “Bring the 300 home.”
Juan Salvador Quiroz, 41, is living in his grandma’s house in Michoacán, Mexico, with walls covered with St. Louis Cardinals memorabilia. When he was a 5-year-old, his mom brought him to St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent the majority of his life.
“I love everything about the Blue Rams, everything,” he said, laughing, over the phone. Quiroz joined the Army as a way to get back on his feet after a tough breakup he went through at 24 years old.
“I wanted to be a good role model and take care of my son,” said Quiroz, who was a track vehicle mechanic, fixing military tanks and also training soldiers headed to Iraq. He served for two years before being honorably discharged.
After not being able to get a full-time job through the VA, temporary services came into play. Quiroz cycled through a series of minimum-wage jobs with benefits for short blocks of time. Unhappy, Quiroz took out a grant through temp services and started going to school full-time. The downside was that while the VA paid for school, he wasn’t making any money and he needed to pay child support.
“Basically when I was going to school, I started selling weed. That’s how I ended up getting in trouble and getting deported,” said Quiroz, who served three years in jail and was deported upon his release.
Since his deportation, Quiroz has lived in Mexico with his wife and three children. Another son and the rest of his family lives in the United States.
“Where I live right now is very bad with crime and the cartels going on. It’s probably one of the most dangerous places to live, and it’s just not a place for your children to grow up,” Quiroz said. “My dream and goal is to be united with my family: my son, my brothers, sisters, everybody.”
Quiroz said he first heard about efforts to bring home deported veterans last year. He was on Facebook and saw a story about Hector Barajas, a vocal deported veteran who received a pardon by California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 and was able to go back to the United States. He was inspired by the story, reached out to Barajas and has since been connected with other deported veterans.
In the coming months, Quiroz wants to start college and study either psychology or computer programming through benefits he was able to receive from his 9/11 GI Bill through the VA.
“When you’re wearing that uniform, wearing that flag on your sleeve, they treat you as you are someone important,” said Quiroz. “It’s sad how once you get in trouble one time, just because you don’t have your name on a piece of paper saying you were born there, you are treated like a criminal. You’re useless. If you’re willing to die or take a life fighting for the United States, you should be able to live here.”
Despite their hardships with the United States’ immigration system, the veterans said they will always be proud of the country they have grown up in and fought for. Yet, they are concerned.
“Being part of the military, I have to respect the person in office but I don’t have to agree. I don’t agree about anything about that man,” said Quiroz of President Trump. He believes the language Trump uses fosters hate and false narratives about the country’s founding principles.
“With that said, I have a big heart and I have faith in humanity. Hopefully, I get to go back to the United States one day,” he said.
Murillo expresses the same sentiment.
“I love the U.S., like really. I served. We got somebody in office who got none of those feelings it seems like, who did not serve, who went out of the way to not serve and I find myself outside my country fighting to get back home,” Murillo maintained. “I see my country on the news and I don’t even recognize it sometimes, but I still hold hope because on the other side of that, I see a lot of people unifying.”
Initially, all three men thought they were the only ones experiencing deportation. Murillo said that on the bus to Tijuana, he thought he must have really messed up for his country to do this to him.
“I also thought, wait, they got to stop the bus here pretty soon and say ‘no, not this guy.’ I still had my hope all the way up until the end,” Murillo said.
And he insists the fight is not over, especially when it comes to his brothers. “Call your congressman. Let them know you support legislation to bring the 300 home.”
Lopez notes his family wants him to stop the work he is doing because it’s dangerous.
And with his situation comes setbacks. Lopez can’t work because he is living without approved identification. He picks up jobs for neighbors who need contracting work in exchange for kitchen appliances he can then sell.
He is afraid every time he gets into a car because he has the potential to get pulled over and then deported. Despite the daily challenges, he persists.
“We’re not excusing anyone for any of our mistakes. What we are saying is that we faced them, we dealt with the consequences and we don’t deserve to be thrown out after that,” Lopez said. “It’s my duty as a Marine to never leave a man behind.”