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Immigration Experts, a Veteran Activist and 'American Exile' Filmmaker Discuss Veteran Deportations

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American Exile” follows the story of two Mexican American brothers, Vietnam veterans, who are facing deportation despite their military service. This film is part of the “VOCES” series, which highlights the best of Latino arts, culture, and history as well as shining a light on current issues and generational impacts that affect Latino Americans today. PBS SoCal | KCET recently hosted a conversation about veteran deportations, moderated by Pilar Marrero. a journalist and an author with experience covering social and political issues of the Latino community in the United States.

She was joined by a panel to discuss the film and its effects on current policy. The panel included filmmaker John Valadez, a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker who has directed a dozen nationally broadcast films for PBS and CNN during the past 25 years. His work explores themes of rage and power, particularly regarding Latinx Americans. Also participating was Valente Valenzuela, one of the protagonists of the story, who joined from Chihuahua, Mexico, and Mariela Sagastume, the immigration lawyer who has represented Valenzuela and his brother Manuel for more than 10 years and who is an immigrant from Guatemala herself.

Below you will find an edited transcript of their conversation.

Pilar Marrero: All right so to start things off let's talk to Valente Valenzuela, a Bronze Star recipient during the Vietnam War. Thank you for your service and welcome tonight.

Valente Valenzuela: Thank you.

PM: Valente, you and your brother Manuel have been advocating for yourselves and others in this situation and finally in July, the Biden administration announced a, and I quote, "Process to allow deported veterans to return to the U.S. in a commitment along with the Department of Veterans Affairs to support our nation's noncitizen service members, veterans, and immediate family." Valente, it has been a few months since that announcement, how do you feel about it so far?

VV: Well, I feel that finally, we hear from the President of the United States. When we started it was with President Obama and we didn't get nowhere. Then, President Trump, he wouldn't even acknowledge that there were veterans deported and now with President Biden I believe we have a better chance of coming back to the U.S.

PM: Have you heard from other veterans that they've had any word from the government or had any help? Or that at least the government is working with the Veterans Administration to provide some services to veterans?

VV: Well most of the veterans that I know, they're very optimistic. They know something is going to happen with this administration. They believe in Biden but we know there has to be a process through the House of Representatives, and Congress and the Senate. Once it passes the Senate, then it will be a law or the bill will become a law.

PM: We'll talk about that bill but let me go to director John Valadez. John when you first met the brothers Valenzuela, when they came to see you in Colorado at a screening of another project of yours and they told you they were deported veterans, you could not believe what they were telling you. This is what you told me not too long ago.

Deporting veterans is not an American tradition. However, as you also told me deporting Mexicans seems to be. We've done it in the '30s. We've done it in the '50s. Of course, we've done more of it in recent years, in the last 25 years particularly, after that 1996 law that is the culprit of all of this. What's your take on the larger political context that has allowed this to happen?

John Valadez: Well, first of all thank you so much for having me in this, it's wonderful to be here this evening. Yes, well when Valente and Manuel approached me, I didn't believe them. I was like, “This is crazy. I've never heard of this. There's no way. We're not deporting veterans. It's just not…” The reason why I responded that way is because it's not part of our heritage and it's not part of our tradition. Foreign nationals have fought for the United States since the Revolutionary War.

You can think of Marquis de Lafayette fighting alongside George Washington. Indeed, scholars have looked into this. Before 1996, as far as we know, there had never been a U.S. military veteran who had been deported. It's really antithetical to our national heritage. It was reasonable that I didn't believe that. On the other hand, what you're saying is true. However, it's not Mexicans that have been deported, in our history especially in the 20th century, it's Mexican Americans.

It's American citizens who have regularly been deported from this country even though they're citizens. In the 1930s about half a million U.S. citizens were deported to Mexico. In the 1950s, under Operation Wetback during the Eisenhower administration, Mexican Americans again deported. Then, in the 1980s, Cheech Marin came out with his film, “Born in East L.A.” The premise of the film was that Cheech gets caught up in an immigration raid and gets deported even though he's born in East L.A. He read that in the L.A. Times.

So, deporting American citizens of Latino ancestry, that is an American tradition. I'm very unhappy to report. What's the larger context? I think the larger context is that the deportation of U.S. military veterans, one of the things that occurred to me as I started working on this film is, I thought to myself, "My God, I would not be surprised if the veterans being deported are all or mostly people of color."

Indeed, that does appear to be the case at least anecdotally from my experience. It's people being deported to the global south, to Africa and Asia. It's not people being deported to Belgium and Denmark. It's also perhaps no coincidence that we also see the rise of white supremacy across the country these days. It's also no coincidence that all of this is happening right at the time when the demographics of the United States are dramatically shifting.

We are rapidly becoming a majority-minority country. By the turn of the next century we will be some iteration of a Latino nation. The veteran deportation issue is kind of a canary in a coal mine: a wake-up call for the fact that there are many Americans, not all but there's a substantial minority who believe that the baseline for what it means to be American is whiteness.

That's the definition that anybody else who's not white is only provisionally American or maybe not really American at all, or maybe American in name only. I think that this film really is a window and reveals something about the national malaise that we're going through as we struggle with our own identity into the 21st century. It's bigger than veterans although that's very important. It's really about the rest of us. [About] what we do to each other, what we do to our veterans and what it says about how the American soul is being perverted and twisted in ways that are quite disconcerting.

PM: Thank you, John. Because we've mentioned a couple of times the 1996 law, I'm going to move to Mariela because yes, the 1996 law was passed by Congress and signed by then-President Bill Clinton at a moment when there was a backlash against immigrants. As you may remember, it was two years after Proposition 187 here in California, and there was a big reaction against a large influx of Latin American and Asian, particularly Latin American immigrants during the '70s, '80s, and part of the '90s.

Immigration attorney Mariela Sagastome has represented the brothers for about 10 years. Welcome, Mariela. Can you help all of us understand why this 1996 immigration law — I won't say the name of it, because it's so long — makes it so seemingly easy to deport U.S Veterans? How does that work?

Mariela Sagastume: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure being here, and thank you to everybody joining us. Yes, as you stated, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, we call it IIRAIRA for short. That was passed in 1996. What that did is that it removed discretion from immigration judges. What that means is that prior to 1996, if an immigrant who was not a U.S. citizen committed some type of crime, the judge would be allowed to look at their service, family ties, employment, all the good things that they can contribute to the United States, they would take those things, and they would balance it against the bad act that the immigrant committed.

One of the things that they would give high consideration to is if this person was a military member or a veteran of the United States. When the 1996 immigration law was passed, that discretion was ripped away from the judges. What ended up happening was that now the judges could only look at the crime, and if that crime was considered what a serious or an aggravated crime, the judge would be blocked and they could not look at the good things that the immigrant could provide to the U.S. community.

With that, that's when it started all the deportations of U.S. veterans. Many of you don't know this, but these veterans have Green Cards, permanent resident status, so they're legally in the United States prior to joining the military, and as many of you know, there are negative effects that many of our military members suffer upon returning to the United States.

When a crime is committed, a veteran, whether it's a U.S. citizen or a Green Card holder, could have prison time.

They complete their time successfully, they complete all the court requirements, and then a U.S. citizen is released, as opposed to a U.S. military veteran who is a Green Card holder, instead of being released, they're transferred to ICE custody to set them up to be deported. That was the very negative consequence that affected specifically U.S. military members or veterans through that 1996 law that was passed.

American Exile - Manuel and Valente Valenzuela
Portrait of Manuel and Valente Valenzuela wearing their uniforms. | Still from "American Exile."

PM: Thank you so much, Mariela. There are different estimates as to how many have been deported, but it goes up to the thousands, some people say it's up to 95,000 veterans over the years. The thing about this law is it was retroactive, so it was passed in '96, but now we're looking backwards at veterans that served in Vietnam and Korea and deporting them, so that's what makes this law so remarkable; let's say it that way.

What would need to change in the law to prevent these deportations from happening in the future? Because there's two different things, what the administration just announced a few months ago was administrative executive action in a way, but there is a law that needs to be changed, and Congress has to do that.

MS: Yes, absolutely. What was proposed in July was announced in July, is really more of an executive action program. It's nothing really set in place, there's no regulations at all. What would really need to happen, as Valente explained earlier, is legislation. We are aware that Senator Tammy Duckworth, who was also a veteran herself, introduced a fantastic legislation and that legislation would prevent the deportation of any military members who were honorably discharged and who do not have violent crimes.

The actual specifics of the bill, we don't have all the information yet and it's something that right now is unfortunately still at a standstill. We remain optimistic that this administration can do what finally needs to be done. This is something that is a no-brainer bipartisan issue and I think every member of whatever political party you support should be in support of U.S. veterans.

PM: Thank you, Mariela. Going back to John, when you were working on the documentary, you provided testimony before Congress about this issue. You believe that this work that you've done with the brothers and showing this to the world, may make a difference. What additional pressure do you feel is needed for the situation to truly change?

JV: First just be clear, in order to get to this point, it's really number one, [the work] came from the veterans themselves.

PM: Absolutely.

JV: It's Valente and Manuel, and deported veterans at the Deported Veterans Support House in Mexico, and many others and then also came in organizations, the ACLU, the Veterans For Peace, the American GI Forum, and many legislators were also very, very concerned. As that activism built up, then a lot of people became involved in this effort. What's really required is the same thing that's always required in a democracy and that is that people have to participate and have their voices heard.

They need to not only vote, but they need to be active members in deciding the future of their own community so I can't give you specifics. There's no silver bullet, but democracy doesn't work if people aren't involved. I guess my hope is that this film is going to air on Tuesday prime time, nationally across the country from coast to coast, from PBS and that's going to be a kind of accelerant.

It makes people aware of what's going on. What would really turn up the heat would be if veteran's organizations across the country are committed themselves to standing with their brothers-in-arms and sisters and to see that they're treated fairly and equitably.

But I will say this. President Biden has always had a longstanding interest and concern and great pride in the American armed forces. His son was a major and served in Iraq. I have every confidence that the Biden administration is going to do everything that they can but their hands are tied, without permanent legislation getting through Congress, everything that president Biden does, could be completely undone by the next commander-in-chief, so it's a temporary fix until Congress acts.

PM: Yes. Thank you. Valente, going back to you, that scene that was in the clip, where you go to the border, you throw your medals, it's very dramatic. It's very painful to watch but you did it with the conviction. You've written a book of your experiences and you are becoming well-known there in Chihuahua. What kinds of feedback have you gotten from people there to your book and your story?

JV: Well then, I could have published the book many years ago, but each time that I started rewriting and correcting, I would break down and I would break out in sweats and tears would flow every night and I would have nightmares. It took me like 45, 50 years to really get down and do something with the book. Each time I opened the diary, I would have these symptoms, PTSD, and I would put the diary away for two or three months, or maybe a year. It went like that for many years. Finally, I married Griselda here in Chihuahua four years ago, and she's the one that really put the book together and I'm having good results. John was here for my book presentation and he can relate to that.

PM: The name of the book, Valente?

PM: The name of the book, Valente?

VV: “El Enemigo Interno.”

PM: The enemy within.

VV: The enemy within.

PM: Have you been contacted by anyone in the administration about your case, coming back is something that you would consider, or is that not what you wanted? What do you want in your case?

VV: I'm happily married here in Chihuahua and my base, my true home is in Colorado Springs. I have to go to El Paso once or twice a month for medical examinations. On the 17th, I have to go see my doctor. I spend a lot of time at the veterans' administration there in El Paso, Texas. I can live here or in Colorado Springs or El Paso, Texas. My family used to call me the tumbleweed because I was never stable in one place. I'm at home right now.

PM: That's good. That's good. We're glad to hear that. There are some questions coming in the chat. When and how can we buy the book, Valente?

VV: The problem with the book is that it's in Spanish.

PM: That's not a problem.

VV: You saw the picture of it. I sell a lot of books through Facebook.

PM: You need to translate that into English.

VV: It's big, it's on the process.

PM: Cool. Great. Oh, there's another question here. It goes for any of you. Has there been any response regarding this from Congressmen or Congresswomen? You mentioned Tammy Duckworth and who else? Any other response? I know there's a Congressman... Did he introduce this in the house? Who else is supporting you?

JV: When we did a congressional briefing on Capitol hill, we showed clips from the film. A lot of people in Congress and the Senate are aware, that the film is going to be airing nationally on PBS next week. I think that that's, something that's probably on people's minds, but I don't think that most people have seen the film because it hasn't aired yet. I guess my hope is that as the film gets out starting next week, after next Tuesday, and it starts to proliferate, and hopefully journalists will write about it and it'll gain broad awareness.

I think that one of the things that the film does, besides explaining the whole complicated context of everything, but I think the most important thing that the film does, is it humanizes the situation. I think you can't watch the film without being touched, and more than anything I think that's what's going to push things over the edge. It's one thing to understand a problem, but it's another thing to feel it in your heart and in your body. I don't know. That's my hope.

American Exile
Watch "American Exile," the story of two brothers who fought in Vietnam are among thousands of veterans who are being deported.
American Exile

PM: Thank you John. I am going to go back to Mariela with a question from me and a question from the chat. Mariela have you seen any impact on the brothers' cases or any other cases from the changing policy that was announced by the Biden administration in July?

MS: I have not seen yet anything from the new policy from July. I have read a news article that there was a gentleman who was able to return in September of 2021, shortly after. That is fantastic news. However, for the other veterans and individuals that I'm assisting with their legal matters, I haven't had any anything else to report. Prior to this announcement, there are some veterans who were able to return, but only after they were able to get a pardon from a Governor.

Some of you that don't know, to get a pardon from a Governor, it's not easy, it's a very lengthy process. It's complicated and there's no guarantee. They had to fight an uphill battle, so it is my hope that with this announcement, this program, that they're setting up, that they will abide by their commitment to bring back veterans and also their immediate family members that may have followed them, or who had to be traveling back and forth with them.

We're hoping that, we've seen some good results, we've also seen that they have temporarily allowed some veterans to come into the U.S. to receive their COVID vaccine, and to receive VA treatments. Those are some positive things, and we're hoping that it's just good, the positivity and the good things that this program is bringing is going to continue and just help all veterans that need it.

PM: Yes, and the pardon. We saw a couple of cases here in California. We saw Hector Barajas who was in Tijuana, I've been down there talking to him many times in the past. And I think yesterday or this week Robert Vivar, also from Tijuana came back. I'm not sure it had to do with the pardon, but these are all individual cases. How many people die? How many veterans died and, and John you showed at the end of your film, the faces of 10 veterans who died in exile. What do you expect to achieve with this?

JV: At the end of the film, the last image that we see are veterans, not only who died, those were people who died while we were making the film that we're aware of. Okay, and believe me it's crossed my mind. If we'd only made the film, been able to make the film a little sooner, maybe we could have saved some lives. However, I'll tell you what I am happy about is I have a sinking suspicion that that things are going to change, and that we're not going to see anymore names or faces added to that list.

Maybe I'm an optimist, maybe I'm being hopeful, but I don't think so. I think we're at a real inflection point, a real turning point, and I don't know if that happens, I think making a movie is great, but saving people's lives and reuniting families, that's a lot better.

PM: Valente, how's your brother Manuel, how's he doing?

VV: I was on the phone about 15 minutes before we aired and he wanted to get in and I told him, "No, Manuel. You want to take the whole space." He's probably, he's on the road going back to Colorado Springs.

PM: He's out there, also doing his part?

VV: Yes. We were in UTEP, the University of El Paso, about 20 days ago. We did a review or a screening on the film.

JV: Manuel was with me last night. We had a screening at Michigan State University, which was a tremendous success. In fact, we've been, I've done 51 screenings in the last few months and hope to reach a 100 by early spring. I think we're going to generate a lot of discussion, a lot of buzz about all of this, and hopefully, that'll be translated into some positive action.

PM: Okay. There's more stuff in the chat. Let's see, that was riveting and horrifically sad watching a Mexican-American citizen, hence hero, throwing his real-life, superhero-earned medals into the waterway. That footage is shockingly agonizing. This is going to be a powerful film. Have you reached out to Gustavo Arellano, the contributor for the Los Angeles Times, to help spread the word of this tremendous film?” I'm sure he'll hear about it. He's in my Facebook too. I hope he chimes in. He's a great writer.

Valente Valenzuela shares his emotional turmoil after receiving his removal notice.
Veteran Self-Deports to Mexico to Live in Exile

Should we just go around and just have some closing words from each of you? What do you want people to get from this film? What do you want to see next from the administration? I know it's hard to predict what Congress is going to do any given moment, especially on immigration. It seems that anything having to do with immigration it's impossible for Congress.

What do you expect to see at least in the next year or two from the Biden administration, you expect people to come back, massive amount of deported veterans coming back? Valente what do you think?

VV: Well, I like to give John Valadez my thanks for the film, even though it took a long time, seven years is a long time. I think he has done more than any politician up to now. I feel that we owe everything to John, Manuel and me.

Okay. As for our lawyer, young lawyer from Denver, I haven't seen her for quite a while. She looks just as gorgeous as when we met seven, eight years ago, or probably more, more than that.

MS: Yes. 11 years.

VV: 11 years. Our ordeal began in '09. You can place yourself in my place. It's like a long nightmare, and eventually, this nightmare will go away. Thank you.

PM: I hope so. John?

JV: Well, I think there's a bigger picture here. At least there is for me. I see the struggle over the deported veteran issue as really one salvo, in a much larger fight, I guess. It's really what I think is the fight for the soul of America. What do I mean by that? Well, look, here's what has come to me over the course of making this film.

When we started the film, it seemed to me that there was very little hope that Valente and Manuel would be successful in their crusade. Then Manuel decides to go visit the President of the United States, a quixotic quest, at best. Just a hopeless journey. Who would embark upon such an undertaking? Just doesn't seem realistic. Yet, here we are. The efforts of Manuel and Valente and many others, as unlikely as they're seen, are actually bearing fruit.

I think of this film, and especially Manuel's role is something of a Mr. Smith goes to Washington, maybe the Chicano version, it's a David and Goliath. It's the idea that the little guy can take on City Hall. It's almost mythic in the American consciousness, and it's ironic that two guys who are being deported, turn out to be the most American of us all, to try to change national policy.

Here's the deal, while some Americans insist on storming the Capitol with bats and bear spray, and beating the hell out of police officers, trying to muscle their way and change the democratic process. Here we are. In particular, these veterans have done the research, spent the time up to their fellow citizens, to convince them and explain the entirety of what's going on. And engaged with their fellow Americans, have engaged in the process of democracy and actually have really changed national policy.

For me, what that says is that democracy works, it can really work. My hat off to Valente and Manuel for spanning divides of difference and finding new connections for positive change and understanding for all of us. They set an example for what it means to be American, as opposed to those posers who stormed the Capitol.

Our process is that we work with one another, because at the heart of it, Americans are good people, they want to do the right thing, and if they get the right information, if they understand what's going on, they're going to do the right thing, because they do care about their veterans and they care about their fellow citizens and they have great heart and great humanity. I think Valente and Manuel reminded me of that.

PM: Thank you, John. Mariela, do you want to say some closing words?

MS: Yes, sure. For me, it really has been a privilege to represent Manuel and Valente, to get to know them. I consider them family, we've gotten very close and I really appreciate their advocacy, their activism, their hard work, their dedication. Like John said, we have to work with one another, and that's really the only way we're going to be able to make a big difference, is keep spreading the word.

When I first started representing Manuel and Valente, as an immigration attorney, I didn't know that veterans could be deported. Just like John, I was shocked and immediately I wanted to see what was happening, how, why. Now that we're here at 2021, I just ask everybody the one thing, or there are several things that you can do.

Contact your state representatives, congress representatives, let them know what's happening, call their offices, email them, watch the documentary, share the documentary with everybody you know so they know that this is happening, still, in the United States. We just have to remember that America is big on honoring our soldiers, and we have to honor our soldiers whether they are citizens or non-citizens. We just have to keep fighting and sí se puede.

PM: Sí se puede, gracias. Thank you so much. Thank you again, panelists, for your time this evening. We appreciate your sharing, your experiences with us, and thank you to the audience who came to watch.

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