Deported Marine veteran, exiled for 12 years, finally wins U.S. citizenship

Deported Marine veteran, exiled for 12 years, finally wins U.S. citizenship

Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times

Kate Morrissey - January 16, 2021

Roman Sabal, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was deported

Roman Sabal, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was deported, in Tijuana in July 2019 before he was denied entry into the United States for a citizenship interview.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

From the temporary housing in Los Angeles that he now calls home, Marine Corps veteran Roman Sabal thought back to the moment his whole life changed in 2020.

Standing straight and stiff as his years in the Marines taught him, amid falling snow flurries in late October in El Paso, the formerly deported veteran raised his right hand and repeated the oath to become a U.S. citizen.

Six feet away was the immigration official who had conducted his interview and was now swearing him in. The official was also a veteran, which he proudly acknowledged with the Marine Corps emblem on his tie and face mask.

For Sabal, it was fitting that the person who allowed him back into the country he’d served after being stuck outside, separated from his partner and children for 12 years, was a fellow Marine. Following the ceremony, the two bumped elbows in celebration.

“That was the happiest moment for me at that time,” Sabal said.

Originally from Belize, Sabal, who also served in the U.S. Army Reserves, had been trying to naturalize since 1995.

He came to the United States in the 1980s on a visitor visa after seeing the Marines in action while he was serving in Belize’s military. He was so impressed that he felt he had to join them.

He served for six years beginning in 1987, initially using false documents to join but coming clean during boot camp about his immigration status. His superiors told him that it wouldn’t matter, he said, that he was a Marine now.

People who serve in the military can apply to become citizens without the waiting periods normally required of most immigrants. But when Sabal began the process, he found himself tangled in the United States’ immigration bureaucracy.

After a trip back to Belize in 2008, he ended up trapped outside the country and away from his U.S. citizen partner and children because an immigration judge had ordered him deported in a hearing he said he didn’t know about.

In 2019, with help from attorneys with the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel, he tried to come to San Diego for a scheduled naturalization interview at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, but border officials would not let him enter the United States and keep the appointment.

“I don’t even want to think about San Diego,” Sabal said. “That was the worst moment of my life.”

His attorneys sued the United States government over the issue and pulled in members of Congress, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), also a veteran, for help.

The pandemic brought on additional challenges. Belize’s border was shut down to travel in or out. When his attorneys finally succeeded in getting the U.S. government to agree to a naturalization interview, Sabal was not allowed to leave.

Eventually, an interview was scheduled for him at a port of entry in El Paso. He was able to obtain special permission from Belize and went to the U.S.-Mexico border for his interview.

Helen Boyer, one of his attorneys, was impressed with Sabal’s resiliency through the daunting process.

“This was a 25-year process for him, and it took a federal lawsuit and six lawyers and many members of Congress to actually get his citizenship, which he is legally entitled to because of his military service. It’s just completely absurd to me,” Boyer said. “So many other people would’ve given up on the process because it’s so difficult and exhausting. I’m so in awe of Roman for persevering.”

Sabal saw it as another mission, one of the most important in his life.

“I had to accomplish this mission. I had to accomplish this mission,” Sabal said.

After he was sworn in, he called his family in Jacksonville, Fla., to deliver the good news. They’d already watched the ceremony as it was streamed live on Facebook by Sabal’s supporter and friend Hector Barajas, who is also a formerly deported veteran and an activist trying to raise awareness about the hundreds of deported veterans worldwide.

Roman Sabal, center, with his attorney Victoria Starrett and his friend and supporter Hector Barajas

Roman Sabal, center, with his attorney Victoria Starrett and his friend and supporter Hector Barajas in Tijuana in 2019 after Sabal tried to come to San Diego for a scheduled naturalization interview, but border officials wouldn’t let him enter the country. (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“My little baby girl was the most excited one,” Sabal said of his daughter, who is about to turn 15 this month. “She said, ‘Daddy you’re home!’ I said, ‘Yes, baby.’”

After lunch, Sabal got on a bus bound for Los Angeles, where friends from his days in the military had agreed to help him while he sorted out his benefits with the Veterans Affairs office. On the long bus ride, he processed what had just happened to him.

“Basically my thoughts were, ‘I made it, I made it, I made it.’ That’s all I was thinking,” Sabal said. “It was joy. It was relief.”

He’s now staying in temporary housing for veterans as part of a one-year program.

He has not yet seen his family because of the pandemic, but he hopes that after he is able to move into his own place, they will finally be reunited.

“When we all get together, it’s going to be the best,” Sabal said.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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