AFI FEST Interview: Hector Barajas and Miguel Perez from READY FOR WAR
Andrew Renzi’s startling documentary READY FOR WAR tells the heartbreaking immigration story of veterans of the Armed Services who, after having fought for the U.S. as a path to legal citizenship, find themselves without citizenship and facing deportation. The film will be screening at AFI FEST presented by Audi on November 19 and 20. We spoke with Hector Barajas and Miguel Perez, two subjects of the documentary, about their experience working on the film and what they hope for the future.
AFI: How did you become involved in the documentary?
Miguel Perez (MP): I became involved in the documentary while I was detained in ICE custody. Andrew Renzi and Nick Boak had already begun their research on deported veterans and came across my case. Andrew contacted me and told me about their work. I instantly knew how important this project truly was, so I didn’t hesitate to participate in it.
Hector Barajas (HB): I was contacted by friends of Renzi and met them through our mutual friend.
AFI: How do you feel about your journey being so public?
MP: I have always preferred to live an “out of the spotlight ” life, but now I am completely fine with the fact that my journey has become so public because it means that people are watching and listening to this issue that’s so dear and personal to me, and that’s what bringing awareness is all about.
HB: I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s always difficult. People are very judgmental.
AFI: Can you tell us a little about your background before joining the US military?
MP: I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. My family and I use to come visit/vacation to the U.S ever since I was a baby. My grandfather was a natural born citizen of the U.S, so we have a lot of family in the U.S. My family and I moved, legally, to Chicago (my home) when I was 7 years old. It was in Chicago where I grew up, went to school, worked, fell in and out of love, had a child – in other words, where I lived my live prior to joining the Military.
HB: I grew up in Compton, California. When I was young, I was a bright kid. In high school I started hanging around troubled kids, but I always worked, always had some type of job.
AFI: From the time you first joined the US military, were you told that by doing so you would become US citizens, with the full rights of US citizenship? Did anyone ever tell you that under certain circumstances, such as being convicted of a non-violent drug offense, that you could be deported to Mexico? When you found this out, did it come as a complete surprise to you?
MP: I have always lived in the U.S as a Legal Permanent Resident, so deportation had never crossed my mind, after all, it is in the title: Legal “Permanent” Resident, but even after joining the military, I thought it was automatic citizenship, so deportation never had a place in my plans/life. Throughout this whole process, from when I first found out that I could be deported, through ICE detention, and eventually my deportation, I was in shock, in complete disbelief. I’m still am!
HB: My parents recall that a recruiter told me I would be an automatic citizen, but I never checked. When I found out I wasn’t a US Citizen, I didn’t follow through. I never really knew you could have your Green Card taken away, let alone get deported even being a veteran.
AFI: It seems that, in spite of how much news coverage border and immigration issues have received, there is very little awareness of this issue and of the fact that US veterans such as yourselves are being deported. Why do you think there is so little attention being paid to this issue?
MP: I believe that the reason that this issue gets very little attention is because it is immoral. Regardless of the “legality” of it, it is a shameful practice of us to deport someone whom has risked their life for our country, our Constitution, and our people. So, of course no one wants their dirty laundry exposed. Maybe because it is so embarrassing ,that’s why we try to keep it quiet??
HB: Personally I have done some hundreds of interviews. The problem, for some reason, is it hasn’t gone viral. We have had over 1 million views on various videos, but it still doesn’t make its way to the general public. We need to create a movement to change this.
AFI: Hector, when your story in the film begins, we see that you have been living in Tijuana where you were deported. After your deportation, did you ever feel at ease in Mexico or were you always feeling like “What am I doing here?! I should be back in the US”?
HB: I struggled for many years to adapt and accept that I was and had to stay in Mexico, but after so many years I started changing my attitude and decided to accept that I was living in Mexico but not give up returning.
AFI: In Tijuana you founded the Deported Veterans Support House (known as “The Bunker”). Describe the men who come to The Bunker and do they all have a very similar story such as yours?
HB: They come from various backgrounds and cities in Mexico and the States, different eras, services and reasons for deportation, but we all served and were taken away from our families.
AFI: Miguel, we meet you in an ICE Detention Center; it feels like you are basically being treated like a criminal at that point. How did this make you feel about your relationship to the US – a country for whom you had served in the military and served two tours of duty in Afghanistan?
MP: Although I was treated like a criminal while in ICE detention, I did not, and still don’t, hold any ill will against anything or anyone in particular. We are the best country in the world, but best does not mean perfect, and unfortunately we have many flaws in our system. It’s in those flaws that I, and others like me, have fallen through. I see it as a reminder that we need to fix these flaws and start paying more attention to our laws, policies, and specially to those whom we elect to enforce and oversee our system.
AFI: In the film, we learn that you experience the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury caused during your tours of duty. Describe how difficult it has been to get medicine and treatment for your condition under these circumstances.
MP: Being deported to Mexico blocked off any and all direct resources that I not only had, but am entitled to when it comes to dealing with my medical conditions like PTSD, traumatic brain injury, etc. With no access to V.A. hospitals, doctors, medicine or mental health professionals, it’s extremely difficult even to do simple everyday things like walking to the park. It’s insane when insomnia, tremors, cold sweats, and paranoia among other symptoms become a normality.
AFI: In the film, we also meet a US veteran known as “El Vet” who is deported to Mexico where he ends up working as an enforcer for a drug cartel. How common is this experience for US veterans who are deported to Mexico? Why are the cartels so interested in recruiting veterans like El Vet? Are the US or Mexican governments confronting this situation in any way?
MP: Criminal organizations like the cartels are very interested in recruiting people like “El Vet” because of this military culture embedded in their head – the U.S military trains the best soldiers in the world. A deported veteran has weapons training, knows how to work well under pressure, obeys orders to the fullest and the best part, he has been thrown away from the country he loves and no one cares, so there might be some rage building up in there, good for battle…
HB: I really try to avoid the subject matter, but it does occur. What I do tell the men, is to try and stay on the straight path so that they can some day return. They, and even Mexican soldiers, are targeted for their military service, combat training and military tactics.
AFI: What legal remedies are there for veterans in your situation? What can people do to support veterans such as yourselves?
MP: The ideal remedy for this atrocity would be an executive order issue by the President of the U.S, or a legislation enacted by Congress that would stop the deportation of veterans and bring back those already deported. However, every veterans story is different, some, like myself, can be able to regain legal status in the U.S by a pardon granted by his/her home state governor, but only if the offense for which he/she was deported for, was a state and not a federal crime. The best way for people to support deported veterans, or those facing deportation, is not only to raise awareness by telling other people, but to call and really put pressure on elected officials, congressmen, senators, governors, anyone and everyone in place until changes come about. It is written “We the people”, right?
HB: Every case is different, but definitely getting rid of the conviction. And then try and get their green card or citizenship. Legislation – they can call their politicians to change the laws or the President can do an executive order. We have to continue to pressure the government.
AFI: This is a long journey for both of you that must take a tremendous emotional toll. How do you keep your spirits up and continue fighting?
MP: My spirits stay so elevated due to the unconditional love and support from my family, friends, community (Chicago), my personal relationship with God, and my faith in our country. If I don’t keep fighting, maybe someone else will, but if they don’t? Who will? So I must….
HB: Every day is a struggle; the doc shows my good days, but that’s just life. There is no easy road and life can throw curve balls as well as we can put ourselves in bad situations, so it’s always good to try and stay focused.
To learn more about Hector and Miguel’s story, watch READY FOR WAR at AFI FEST. Buy tickets here.