COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — At just 18-years-old, Manuel Jesus Valenzuela felt a calling to serve.
“I felt like, I need to go out and serve the country,” Valenzuela said from his downtown Colorado Springs home. “I had to do something. So, I said I’m going to do my duty as a Marine.”
In 1971, while some American young men were avoiding the draft, and, even leaving the country, Valenzuela enlisted and went to Vietnam within months of joining. He and three deployments there during his four years of service.
“We were on the border of Vietnam, on the shores and we would do rescue missions into Nam in a helicopter, to help troops who were ambushed,” Valenzuela said. “It’s hard to talk about. To rescue somebody, you had to put down the enemy.”
He was following in his older brother’s footsteps. Valente Valenzuela enlisted in the Army two years before him and also fought in Vietnam.
Despite their years of service, Manuel and his brother are now facing deportation from the very country they were fighting for.
“In 2009, to get a removal notice from this country, I felt that my world just stopped right there,” he said. Manuel and his brother continue to receive notices from Homeland Security for court appearances. Each time they show up, plea their case but are never given significant closure.
The Valenzuelas were born in Mexico but their mother is American, which, by law, would entitle them to United States citizenship. However, Valenzuela believes it was the misdemeanor he and his brother admitted guilt to decades ago that may have hurt their cause. “I got a ticket for drunk and disorderly at a bar where we were just celebrating a wedding,” Valenzuela said.
He says it’s the demons of combat that too many vets are forced to cope with on their own.
“That was our medication – drinking and drugs that was our help at the time – cause we didn’t have no help from the VA,” Valenzuela said.
It was then-President Bill Clinton who signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Many times, other vets are faced with the same problems and have run-ins with the law. If they are permanent residents but not naturalized citizens, they can face deportation, according to the 1996 law.
It allowed the government to detain and deport immigrants — even legal permanent U.S. residents for a range of relatively minor, nonviolent criminal convictions. Opponents say the U.S. is still using these laws to authorize fast-track deportations.
Valenzuela believes there are anywhere from 3,000 to 30,000 veterans facing deportation. It’s a number that’s difficult to track because many vets give up and move South of the border without reporting to anyone. Not even the Department of Homeland Security keeps track of the numbers or has an estimate of how many veterans face deportation or have already been deported.
“I didn’t tell my brother. I didn’t tell nobody. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt hurt. There’s words… I can’t even describe how ugly I felt,” Valenzuela admits.
While Valenzuela continues his fight, he’s also advocating for other vets by speaking to lawmakers everywhere, including here at the state capital.
State Representative Pete Lee is familiar with the Valenzuela’s fight.
“I think there are compelling reasons to recognize someone who has fought for our country. I believe the Valenzuela brothers are decorated veterans,” Lee said. “They deserve tall the rights and privileges of citizenship.”
Lois Landgraf represents the 18th District in Colorado which includes Fort Carson. She’s familiar with the Military needs and her husband served in Vietnam.
“People are putting their lives on the line for our country and our rights,” Landgraf said. “They have given us everything we have. We should do everything we can for them.”
At the national level, U.S. Representative Doug Lamborn (R) of the U.S. Armed Services Committee acknowledges that red tape is getting in the way.
” We have a system that is so bureaucratized,” Lamborn said. “It needs reform and can never succeed the way it is set up. I’m afraid.”
As Valenzuela waits to hear the fate of his permanent residency, he’s rarely at his residence as he travels nearly every other week to help his military brothers – from San Francisco to Arizona, Chicago and Washington D.C.
When he is at home, Manuel’s message can be heard loud and clear.
“It’s a harsh awakening to get a removal notice from a country that we brought each other home from wars you know.”
On 20 April 2016, lawmakers introduced a bill to readmit military veterans who were deported and who were not previously convicted of serious crimes. It would also prevent the removal of military veterans from the U.S. in the future. As of February 2017, their fate remains undecided.>> To see Manuel and Valente Valenzuela’s journey, click here.