Transcript for Many deported U.S. veterans hope for path to citizenship
[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): More than 1,000 miles from his home state of Texas--
- We're Cowboy fans. Stuck with them wherever I go.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): --Joe Rico, a decorated US Navy Veteran, has been stuck living in this unfamiliar place. Five years ago, a judge deported him from the US to Mexico.
- I got deported from my home, America-- from my mom, everybody. Everybody's over there.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): His deportation was triggered by a conviction on drug charges, which he says stemmed from his struggles with addiction after he returned home from war.
JOE RICO: I went through some depression, got in trouble. And I even asked the judge, are you really going to deport a Veteran? And he's like, well, I thank you for your service. But, he says, you got to go.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): His greatest support is back home in Texas, his mother Frances Garcia, and she's devastated.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Dreaming of the day when she might be able to embrace her son again. And now Joe is about to get his chance to return home.
JOE RICO: I'm ready to go back home. My mom, she's waiting for me. It's been a long time.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Joe is just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Veterans who feel they were unfairly deported to their birth countries for various crimes. Since the Revolutionary War, non-US citizens have been allowed to serve in the US military. Today, more than 32,000 of them are enlisted. Many of them lured by an enticing incentive-- if they serve in the US military, they might get American citizenship. When Joe was just four years old, he came to Texas from Mexico with his family.
- Why were they coming here?
- For the American dream, a better-- better life.
- Your dad wanted a better life for the family?
- My mom. My mom. She-- she says they went.
- How would you describe Frances?
- Beautiful. Best mom in the world.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Joe had legal permanent resident status, but wasn't a US citizen. When September 11 happened, he decided to enlist-- spurred on not only by the prospect of citizenship, but by an urgent sense of patriotism.
- What was your heart telling you?
- To sign up.
- Sign up.
- Sign up, step up-- and I did.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Joe was deployed twice in the Iraq war.
- And while you were there protecting the United States, how did that feel?
- It felt good. It felt like I was doing something.
- Felt like you were giving back?
- I made my family proud, giving back. Made myself proud. I loved it. I miss it.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): He wanted to become a US citizen. But he says trying to navigate the process and the paperwork while serving was difficult.
- Wasn't there a time that you could have requested full citizenship and maybe have prevented the deportation?
- I did. I sent-- I sent out a package-- whole fingerprints, picture IDs, everything. And I have a whole package.
- And nothing became of it?
- Nothing became of it. It got lost in the system.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Joe says he never followed up. After he was honorably discharged, he went to college, bought a house. But he says he also started to struggle with his mental health. He believes he suffered from PTSD, though was never formally diagnosed.
- If you hadn't had it, do you think you would have turned to drugs?
- No. I don't think so. I was doing great until that part of my life came in.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): To cope, Joe says he started using methamphetamine, and eventually started selling it to support his addiction. He served five years in prison on the drug convictions.
- Now, you understand you broke the laws?
- I broke the law. Yeah, I understood the whole "did the crime, do the time" thing. But getting deported, that's like getting punished twice. I'm still paying for it.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): In his fight to get back home, Joe started working with Robert Vivar, who runs an advocacy group helping deported Veterans with paperwork and access to legal services.
- It is pretty common for that situation to have occurred where they actually applied for citizenship and never followed them through.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Non-US citizens serving in the military have long been subject to deportation for violent crimes like murder. But deportations like Joe's for non-violent crimes have increased since 1997, after the Clinton administration passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
- It created a category called "aggravated felony," where any conviction of more than one year carried automatic deportation. On top of that, it took away discretion that an immigration judge could use when addressing an issue of a Veteran in removal proceedings.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office found that many deported Veterans' convictions were drug related. And that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, policy requires the agency to take additional steps to proceed before a Veteran is deported. But that ICE did not consistently follow its policies, and did not consistently identify and track such Veterans.
- It's been a hard road my whole life.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Like Joe Rico, US Marine and Iraq war Veteran Edwin Salgado was deported to Mexico after a drug conviction. He also did not have US citizenship at the time.
- I missed my-- my appointment for the fingerprints because I was deployed.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): He says he was diagnosed with PTSD after his deployment. But the VA hospital that he'd like to receive treatment from is across the border-- a world away, as long as Edwin is barred from entering the US.
- The PTSD is bad. I've come close to suicide a few times. I don't want to do that, you know? But sometimes it's just-- those thoughts just come to your mind. And you know, you just want it all to shut down, you know?
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): In the seven years he's been in Mexico, Edwin has created a new life South of the border with a wife and daughter.
- My goal is just to be happy. That's it. That's the only thing I want. I just want to have access to the US. I want to be able to go to the VA to get treatment.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): He also found a sort of therapy in art, helping create this mural along the Tijuana-California border.
- The upside-down flag, it's a sign. So we're in distress. We need help. We're willing to die for the country. And as soon as we're not needed anymore, we're just discarded, you know?
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): At least 75 deported Veterans have returned to the US since 2022. That's when the Biden administration launched an initiative providing a pathway back to the US, and halting future deportations.
- It's not legislation, so it could change at any time. We need legislation to be passed.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): For years, US Congressman Mark Takano has been trying to pass that legislation.
- Deporting Veterans, people who've served our nation and have put their lives on the line, there's something wrong with that.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): As the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, today he introduced his fourth bill on the issue with bipartisan support.
- We aim to prevent deportations of Veterans by making sure that non-citizen Veterans become citizens. And we mandate a number of steps that the Department of Defense has to take to make that happen.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): His bill would also create a process for a Veteran's military service to be considered before deportation.
- Your Republican peers who voted down your previous bills have said that they believed it would open a path for criminals to stay in the country, and that it creates additional carve-outs to an already broken immigration system. Your response to those criticisms?
- We do not defend, at all, heinous, serious crimes-- murder, crimes against children. We do say that there's a-- if anyone deserves a second chance, it is a Veteran. Somebody who has worn the uniform of the United States. It is a travesty to me that these folks who have been deported can get back into the country in a coffin to be buried in the National Cemetery.
- They can be guaranteed the right to be brought back into this country if only they're dead?
- Only they're-- they're dead. That's right.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Back in Mexico, Joe Rico has been in drug rehab, recovering from his addiction.
- I'm just happy that I get to go home tomorrow. I'm going to miss all of you. I love you guys.
It was very healing for me. I loved it.
JOHN QUINONES: You sober now?
- Sober now, no cravings. I love it.
- How many nights have you cried?
- I can't. I've lost count.
- What brings the tears?
- My mom.
- Your mom?
- My mom. How many times I let her down.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): But in May, due to Biden's initiative, Joe finally received the news he was waiting for for so long. His request to return to the US had been approved.
JOE RICO: I keep thinking I'm going to get a call and something's wrong is going to happen, or I don't know. I'm just ready to go home.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Accompanied by his partner Sonia Jimenez and fellow deported Veteran Edwin Salgado--
- Bye [SPANISH].
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): --the walk to the immigration checkpoint filled with bittersweet goodbyes.
- All right, bro! Welcome, welcome, welcome!
- How you doing?
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Joyous reunions greet them on the American side in San Ysidro.
- You look good.
- Thank you for choosing to fly with us today.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): But the journey back home is far from over. High above the clouds, with hours to go before landing back in Texas, there's only one person on Joe's mind. A mother's love-- no words needed.
JOHN QUINONES: How do you feel to have your son back?
- You never gave up hope? [SPEAKING SPANISH]
- No. [SPEAKING SPANISH]
- When you felt abandoned by--
- Everybody else, she was there. She's still there. She's waiting to feed you.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): Joe Rico is finally back home, but he could be sent back to Mexico at a moment's notice.
- Right now, I am in a year parole.
- Which means you have to watch everything.
- Everything, which I have no problem with. I told them I would wear a GPS, I would call in every day if I have to-- whatever it took.
JOHN QUINONES (VOICEOVER): He is that determined to remain in the only home he's really ever known.
- What do you want more than anything right now?
- Become a citizen, get a job, and start a new life.
- Because in your heart, you're American.
- I'm American. Yes, sir.
- Our thanks to John. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health crisis, free, confidential help is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Call or text the National Suicide and Crisis lifeline at 988.
This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.