Originally published by The San Diego Union Tribune
Like a victorious boxer after a grueling championship match, Joaquin Aviles flung his hands in the air after crossing the border at San Ysidro Thursday morning.
It was the first time that Aviles, a Marine Corps veteran, legally entered the United States since he was deported nearly 20 years ago.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Aviles, 43 right after crossing. “Even the air smells different here now.”
Aviles walked straight to his nephew, Steve Aviles, and they embraced. Then he walked over to Talia Inlender, one of the lawyers who helped get in back into the U.S., gave her a big hug, and simply said, “thank you.”
His father, Esteban Aviles, waited in a car to drive him up to Riverside County where their family lives.
“I’m very happy,” Esteban said. “Thank god. I’ve prayed so much for this.”
Aviles’ case marked the first time a deported veteran has returned home thanks to the Deported Veterans Legal Services Project, which launched last year to offer deported veterans free legal counsel. That program put Aviles in touch with lawyers from the Public Counsel law firm.
Aviles first moved to the United States when he was only six months old. He grew up in Santa Ana, graduated from Lake Elsinore High School in 1994, reported to boot camp six months later and one day dreamed of being a police officer.
“I’ve always protected people who can’t protect themselves,” Aviles said. “I protected the ones who got bullied. I don’t like people getting bullied.”
He was discharged after a firearms possession conviction in 1996 — two years after joining the Marine Corps. Aviles was never deployed.
A second firearms conviction, this one in 1998, landed Aviles in immigration court. He was a permanent resident and, at that time, the firearms possession convictions counted as a deportable offense.
Aviles represented himself in immigration court. He had always considered himself American and didn’t really think he’d actually be barred from entering the country he once took an oath to protect.
“At first it didn’t really hit me,” he said. “I told the judge, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’”
Twice, he tried to enter the country illegally. He got caught during his first attempt in 2002 and spent two years in prison. Less than 30 days later, he tried again.
Why? Because Mexico wasn’t his home.
“I didn’t really care about the consequences,” he said. “You have no ties here, no culture, no knowledge of the people, the laws anything. We don’t fit in here. You can’t have work, you can’t go back to school, if cops find out you’re deported then you’re automatically a bad guy. There are so many obstacles.”
Aviles got caught again. This time he spent three years in prison.
He got out in 2007 and decided to give Mexico a try. He credits his training in the Marine Corps for helping him stay disciplined in Mexico.
Aviles got married, started a family, got a steady job and built a life south of the border. He found work in a Rosarito call center that was mostly staffed with other deportees who were valued for their ability to speak English.
That’s where he met Hector Barajas, a fellow deported veteran who was trying to build a support group for other vets. Initially, Barajas worked out of his Honda Accord and had a small network of deported veterans.
Barajas began raising awareness about deported veterans after his own removal from the U.S. in 2004. He was deported after serving a prison sentence for shooting at an occupied car in 2002. But Barajas’ deportation was overturned after Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him along with two other deported veterans in 2017.
Over the years that support group Barajas built evolved into the Deported Veterans Support House, an organization that helps hundreds of deported veterans all over the world.
Aviles has been involved since the beginning and is now the organization’s co-director along with Barajas. Seeing him go back home is an inspiration to other deported veterans, Barajas said.
“It gives the other guys hope,” Barajas said.
Today, they have support houses in Tijuana and Juarez. Additionally, they recently began organizing other deported veterans in the Dominican Republic. The organization helps deported veterans find housing, jobs, collect legal documents like birth certificates, and connects them with free legal aid.
That’s actually how Aviles got in touch with lawyers at the Public Council law firm in August 2018.
Inlender, supervising senior staff attorney at the pro-bono law firm, remembers being impressed with Aviles’ ability to stay positive.
Over the years, multiple lawyers had told Aviles that he’d never get his deportation overturned. But the man never lost hope, Inlender said.
Once lawyers from Public Counsel looked at his case, they noticed that Aviles’ firearm possession convictions no longer constituted deportable offenses because of a series of court rulings in 2013 and 2014.
They filed an appeal in December and found out that Aviles’ deportation got overturned in July. That means his status as a permanent resident could be reinstated.
“We were absolutely thrilled to get the decision that we got,” said Inlender.
“These are people who have served in uniform, they have been separated from their families and country for many years and it does bring a sense of hope and justice,” she said.
In the short-term, Aviles plans to find a job in California and visit his two daughters — who are now 16 and 22 — as much as possible and give them the financial support he hasn’t been able to provide while living in Mexico.
In the long-term, Aviles plans to become a U.S. citizen, continue to help deported veterans and eventually move his wife and children to the United States.
More than anything, he wants veterans to stop being deported.
“Our oath of allegiance to the United States government should mean something,” he said. “It should not be disregarded just because we are not born in the country we swore to protect.”