Jose Cardenas, 67, stands at U.S.-Mexico border fence in Tijuana that has been painted with the names of deported U.S. veterans. Cardenas was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, served seven years in the U.S. military and was deported in 2009 after a drug conviction.  Erika Aguilar/KQED News
Jose Cardenas, 67, stands at U.S.-Mexico border fence in Tijuana that has been painted with the names of deported U.S. veterans. Cardenas was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, served seven years in the U.S. military and was deported in 2009 after a drug conviction.  (Erika Aguilar/KQED News)

He Served in the U.S. Military, But That Didn't Stop His Deportation

He Served in the U.S. Military, But That Didn't Stop His Deportation

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Jose Cardenas always wanted to serve in the military.

The 67-year-old Cardenas was born in Mexico but moved to the United States when he was seven years old. He joined the ROTC in high school in San Diego in hopes of following in the footsteps of his stepdad, an American citizen who sponsored him to become a permanent resident.

“I was preparing myself because I knew I was going to get drafted," Cardenas says. He was drafted and served in the Army's 82nd Airborne division between 1970 and 1972. He was never sent into combat, but after his two years were up, he joined the Army Reserves and then the National Guard for a total of seven years of military service.

While he was in the military, Cardenas applied for U.S. citizenship, but he says his application was never processed.

He Served in the U.S. Military, But That Didn't Stop His Deportation

He Served in the U.S. Military, But That Didn't Stop His Deportation

In 1999, police caught him driving a meth dealer around, and he was convicted of drug conspiracy. He had been in a bad way since his oldest son was killed in a gang shooting.

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"I went into a depression," he says. "I lost my job and everything, so I didn't have nothing."

Because his citizenship application never went through, Cardenas was deported to Mexico after serving 10 years in federal prison.

“When I got deported I didn’t even know where I was," Cardenas says. He hadn't lived in Mexico since he left when he was seven years old, and he spoke little Spanish.

Cardenas says he was deported to somewhere near the U.S.-Texas border, far from his birthplace in southern Mexico town of Tecomán in the state of Colima. He made his way to Playas de Tijuana, where he's been living alone, along with many other deported U.S. veterans.

This is the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Friendship Park in Tijuana that divides California from Mexico. Separated families come here on weekends to see each other. (Erika Aguilar/KQED News) (Erika Aguilar/KQED News)

"The life out there and the life in here is totally different," he says of living in Mexico. "They do kind of make fun of us because we don’t speak the language. They call us pochos sometimes."

He says Tijuana is almost like living in the United States because there are many Americans there, but there's one big difference: Cardenas can't see his family, who lives just across the border in San Diego, his home of more than 50 years. Just across that border are great grandkids he's never met, his two daughters and a son who also served in the U.S. military in Kosovo and Iraq, he says.

"Sometimes he wakes up and he goes crazy," Cardenas says of his son. "He thinks he’s out there still, so someone needs to be there to kind of calm him down and stuff. And that hurts me because I can’t do that."

Cardenas says one of his grandsons just joined the military, too.

"It worries me because you never know what’s going to happen, and you can’t do nothing here," he says. "All you can do is just hope that everything goes okay and that’s it.”

But Cardenas isn't just sitting around and hoping. He's fighting to get back to the country he and his family have served for decades.

He's rallied, marched and met with California politicians as part of a group of deported veterans lobbying the government to allow them to return to the U.S. based on their military service. His group painted a section of the border fence in Tijuana red, white and blue with the names of deported veterans.

For now, Cardenas says there is one other way deported veterans like him can eventually get back to the United States. Veterans who leave active military duty with an honorable discharge are eligible for a burial spot in a Veterans Administration national cemetery.

Jose Cardenas, 67,  was born in Colima, Texas and brought by his parents to San Diego when he was seven years old. He served seven years in the U.S. military and was deported in 2009 for a drug conviction. "Sometimes they ask how can they deport a veteran, but they do," he said. (Erika Aguilar/KQED News) (Erika Aguilar/KQED)

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Erika Aguilar's reporting from Tijuana, Mexico as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.