When President Donald Trump looks out over the chamber of the U.S House of Representatives during the State of the Union address Tuesday evening, one of the faces looking back at him will be a man who, until a few weeks ago, could not have stepped foot in the United States, much less travel to the U.S. Capitol to attend the president’s speech.
Marco Chavez defies easy description. He’s the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in the United States. He served honorably in the Marine Corps. Undocumented, he was deported after serving a prison term for animal cruelty. And, in December, 15 years after his deportation, Chavez was able to return home to the United States after California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him and an immigration judge ruled to restore his U.S. residency.
Chavez will be a guest on Tuesday evening of his congresswoman, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-Calif., a freshman lawmaker who advocates for minorities in her district. Barragán is also a child of Mexican immigrants.
Chavez said his message is not political. He just wants to see others like him get their fair shot.
“Veterans should not be getting deported,” Chavez said. “Anybody picking up a firearm to defend this country shouldn’t be deported.”
But at the culmination of Trump’s first year in office, immigration has become a political lightning rod.
The president insulted Mexicans during his election campaign, calling them rapists and criminals and promising to build a wall between the countries. And he has insisted that immigrants from developing countries have little to offer the United States. He has made immigration reform a pillar of his agenda, promising to change the decision of who gets a visa from the neediest to a merit-based determination.
Barragán believes immigration will be a key theme in Trump’s State of the Union. She said Chavez’ presence should serve as a dual-pronged message to a president who has also pressed for expanding and strengthening the U.S. military.
“I think that certainly the message to this president is that we are a nation of immigrants and immigrants give to this country like so many others,” she said. “And, a lot of them – even Dreamers (children born in the United States to undocumented mothers) -- serve in the military.”
“There’s a whole section of those who are serving that he is dishonoring and the message should be clear,” she added. “People like Marco and our Dreamers who are in the military deserve something better.”
Chavez is believed to be one of hundreds of U.S. veterans who have served in the armed forces but were later deported after getting into trouble. He was one of three that Brown pardoned in December. Among the others was Hector Barajas-Varela, a former soldier with the 82nd Airborne who founded the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, working to raise awareness for deported veterans. Barajas-Varela is awaiting a judge’s ruling on the status of his case after U.S. Customs and Immigration missed a deadline to answer his petition to return to the United States.
For Chavez, the journey has been grueling. He served four years in the Marine Corps before being honorably discharged. He believed that because of his service, he was automatically a U.S. citizen. When he got into trouble in the late 1990s, he served his time in prison and went about his life again. He thought that period was behind him and he started working and taking care of his family.
But in 2004, after he got into an argument, police were called. The issue was resolved but officer did a check of his background. It turned out that he was not a U.S. citizen and he was deported. By then, he and his wife had three children.
At first, his wife went with him, but the Mexican border town of Tijuana is rough and crime and is high and she returned to the United States with their kids.
Coming home in December, though joyous, has also served as a stark confrontation with the tatters of the life that Chavez didn’t build. At 45, he’s come back to no job or career, no money and no home. He’s staying with his parents until he can get himself sorted.
His children, who are now 17, 20, and 21, have been reluctant to warm to him, he said.
“I am not sure if they blame me, I just know there is a lot of resentment for me not being here,” Chavez said.
So he’s working to construct a new life and build a relationship with his family before he moves to Iowa, where his now ex-wife and two of his children are located.
“It’s like coming out of high school with nothing,” he said. “I’ve got to start over. That’s kind of what it’s like. I am getting another start, but a late one.”
Barragán plans not only to bring Chavez to the president’s address, but also to introduce him to as many congressional colleagues as she can. She wants to highlight what she called the injustice of deporting men and women who serve in uniform.
“My colleagues on the other side of the aisle don’t realize this is happening,” Barragán said. “They are shocked. The problem is, there is not any action after they learn about it. So the more we can highlight, the better.
“To be able to shine a light on people who served this country and yet the country they are serving is turning their back on their on them, I think it’s important to do,” she said.
©2018 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.