CIUDAD JUÁREZ – Ivan Ocon was born in this Mexican border city, but it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling less at home in the place of their birth than he does.
He rarely leaves the small, three-bedroom house east of Juárez’s city center that he shares with his girlfriend. He doesn’t try to make friends.
He won’t go out after dark. He fears Juárez and its well-known dangers. His home is fortified. There are two locked gates before you get to the front door. He must unlock three sets of locks to get inside.
“Life is cheap down here,” he says. “It’s better to be home, safe, don’t go out.”
Ocon, 41, considers himself an American. He grew up in Las Cruces. He graduated from Oñate High School. His mother still lives in the city. His daughter does, too.
He desperately wants to return to the United States, but can’t. He can’t even visit.
He doesn’t want to be here. He stands out here as different. The doormat at his home welcomes visitors in English. There’s a huge U.S. flag on the wall of an upstairs bedroom.
From his front patio, Ocon can look north and see the skyline of El Paso and the star that is lighted at night on the slopes of the Franklin Mountains. That view intensifies his desire to return to the United States.
“I don’t belong here,” he says. “My whole life was over there — all my friends, all my family. Everything is over there. That’s where I should be.”
Ocon served the United States for seven years as a member of the U.S. Army. He represented it in overseas war zones. He risked his life for the country he swore to protect. But he is not a U.S. citizen. He was a legal permanent resident.
He was deported in 2016 after serving nine years in federal prison for his role in a crime committed by his brother. He is one of probably several thousand non-citizen veterans who have been deported for breaking the law. The exact number is unknown.
The only way he can return legally is if he is pardoned, Congress enacts a law to enable deported veterans to return and become citizens, or if he dies.
“If we’re veterans we should be treated like veterans,” Ocon says. “We should be able to get citizenship. Yeah, we broke the law, but at the same time, once a U.S. citizen pays his debt to society he goes back on the street.
“We were willing to die for our country. We paid for our crimes. Our mistakes shouldn’t define the rest of our lives.”
Feet away from birthright citizenship
Ocon could have become a U.S. citizen, he almost was one, and thought he earned that status when he joined the military.
Although born in Juárez, Ocon says he was conceived in El Paso. His mother was born and raised in Juárez, but migrated to the United States in search of a better life.
Ocon’s father is a U.S. citizen, he says. That made him eligible for citizenship if certain conditions had been met. But they weren’t.
He was his mother’s first child. She got scared when she became pregnant and returned to Juárez to live with family and give birth. If she had remained in the United States, Ocon would have automatically become a citizen when he was born.
“She always said, ‘I’m sorry,’” he says. “It was just my luck.”
After he was born, his mother returned to the United States and left him with his grandmother in Juárez, where he lived for his first seven years.
Ocon’s mother and father never got back together and he has no relationship with his father. He thinks he lives in El Paso but isn’t certain. He met his father just once, when he was 11 years old.
“He said he was going to be there for me,” Ocon recalls, “but he never was.”
Ocon saw and spoke to his mother infrequently when he was living in Juárez. His grandparents didn’t have a phone and cell phones weren’t yet common. His mom moved around, living in El Paso, Fort Worth, and Colorado. She had two more children.
He started seeing her more often when she moved back to El Paso. Then she got married, which enabled her to become a legal permanent resident and bring him to the United States. She had two more children with her husband, so there were five kids at home, including Ivan.
Two years after Ocon moved to El Paso, his mom left his stepdad when “he started cheating with the babysitter,” Ivan says.
They moved to Las Cruces, moving in with an uncle who lived in a mobile home. Two years later, they rented an apartment on Solano Avenue. Eventually, his mom bought a house on Buchanan Street.
Ocon’s family was poor. His mom often worked multiple jobs. He couldn’t play sports because his family didn’t have enough money. He never really considered going to college because of his family’s financial situation.
He developed a mechanical ability at a young age, nurtured by his stepdad in El Paso, who taught him how to work on cars, “while he sat in a lawn chair having a beer,” Ocon says. He took shop classes in high school, fixed his mom’s car, and eventually got a car of his own.
His mother remarried when he was 17, marrying a U.S. citizen, which qualified her to become a citizen. She became a citizen two weeks after he turned 18. If she’d become a citizen before he turned 18, that would have made him eligible for citizenship, too.
“I barely missed it,” he says.
Serving the United States
Ocon graduated from Oñate High School in 1996 and immediately joined the Army, inspired by all the war movies he watched growing up. In fact, he was watching the movie “Dead Presidents” when he called the recruiter and committed.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger,” he explains. “I wanted to give back to my country. It wasn’t my birth country but I felt it was my country.”
Although Ocon didn’t know it at the time, U.S. immigration law enables non-citizen service members to apply for naturalization after one year of honorable service (one day during periods of hostility).
In fact, when he showed the recruiters his green card, he says they told him that enlisting would make a citizen, though that isn’t entirely accurate. Nowadays, new recruits can apply for citizenship during basic training and complete the process within about 10 weeks.
When the recruiter told him that, he replied, “Oh, that’s cool,” but thought nothing more about it and didn’t investigate that until several years later.
Reflecting the mechanical skills he developed at a young age, Ocon’s armed forces vocational aptitude test found that his strongest ability was mechanical. After basic training, he was sent to Maryland to learn how to be a diesel power generator mechanic.
But even mechanics were trained to be soldiers, fighting men, which was the part of the Army that Ocon liked best.
He was stationed first in Fort Lewis, Washington, then went to air assault school in Hawaii. He spent time in Japan and spent a year in South Korea. He enlisted initially for three years, then reenlisted in 1999 and again in 2001.
After his second reenlistment, he was sent to Fort Bliss. He still had the same girlfriend he had in high school and, when he returned to the area, she relocated from California to study nursing at New Mexico State University. They lived in Las Cruces. Eventually, she got pregnant.
About this time, Ocon inquired about the process for becoming a citizen. He asked lawyers in the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, but says they told him they didn’t know anything about that. He asked his superior officers, but they weren’t any help either.
Then he was shipped off to war and had bigger concerns.
In January 2003, he was deployed to Jordan as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His unit was assigned to protect the Kingdom of Jordan. Although he was far from the fighting, he had one bad experience that changed him.
His unit left their post to retrieve a truck, escorted by Jordanian soldiers. Suddenly their escort disappeared. They got lost. Everything was in Arabic. Their radio stopped working. Then a tractor-trailer nearly rammed their vehicle. Ocon thinks it may have been intentional.
“Your life starts to flash in front of your eyes,” he says. “That’s when I said, ‘I need to get out.’”
He also soured on the military. His unit returned from the Middle East in May. His wife gave birth to their daughter in June. He applied for financial assistance from the Army, but was denied. He also became disillusioned with his fellow soldiers who didn’t take the military as seriously as he did.
“I wanted to be like Rambo,” he says. “I was by the book. There was a lot of people that took it like a joke. There were a lot of guys who did nothing all day.”
‘World turned upside down’
Ocon’s troubles began when he returned from the Middle East.
He fell into depression. He had trouble sleeping. He was used to life in a war zone, where soldiers rarely sleep for more than three or four hours at a stretch. His body didn’t adjust when he returned to the states.
A friend suggested he try smoking marijuana to help sleep. He did and that very week the Army did a random drug test on his unit and he tested positive. The Army immediately began the process to remove him and he was discharged in December 2003, two months early.
“You feel like your whole world collapsed,” he says. “Everything you fought for goes down the drain.”
Ocon had received two honorable discharges, but this time he received a “general discharge (under honorable conditions),” a less favorable discharge that is given if a service member commits “minor disciplinary infractions,” according to the Veterans Administration.
A general discharge does not disqualify a non-citizen service member from being eligible for citizenship, but he never applied.
Once he got out of the Army, Ocon had difficulty finding work. He struggled, taking any job he could find. He delivered furniture for less than the minimum wage. He worked construction. Eventually he got a job installing fiberoptic lines.
He thought about re-enlisting, but “that’s when my world turned upside down,” he says.
In May 2006, his brother drove from Albuquerque to celebrate Ocon’s 29th birthday with him. They went to El Paso. The next day his brother sold a large quantity of marijuana, Ocon says, but the people who bought it turned around and robbed him at gunpoint.
In an effort to get his money back, Ocon says, his brother kidnapped a 16-year-old nephew of one of the men who robbed him. He took the nephew to Juárez and held him for ransom. Because he took the teen across the border, it became a federal crime.
Ocon insists he wasn’t involved in any way in the drug deal or kidnapping, but knew what his brother was doing. He says he advised him not to do it.
The FBI arrested Ocon the following month. He was charged with “aiding and abetting” a kidnapping and weapons violations because a gun was used in the crime. Ocon says he was charged with aiding and abetting because he knew about his brother’s actions but did not report him.
Ocon pleaded guilty because he was told he would receive a shorter sentence if he did. In September 2007, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He spent a year and a half at a federal prison in Florence, Colorado, then served the rest of his time in Beaumont, Texas.
His brother refused to be interviewed for this story, or to confirm or deny Ocon’s version of the events. He was recently released from prison, but, ironically, he gets to stay in the country because he was born here and is a citizen.
Ocon says his sentence was reduced by a year for good behavior, but he never gained his freedom in this country because he was turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement upon his release and the government began deportation proceedings against him.
He hired a lawyer and fought deportation but lost. In February 2016, he was chained and transported to the port of entry at Laredo, Texas, and ordered to leave the country.
“You feel like they’ve ripped everything from you,” he says. “You don’t even have friends here. You’ve got nothing. Everything’s gone.”
Deported to Mexico
When he walked across the bridge to Mexico, Ocon had only a small duffel bag with a few clothes and toiletries. He had $500 in his pocket. He didn’t know anybody in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican city across the border from Laredo.
He still had family in Juárez, so he took three buses to get there, spending about half his cash. He moved in with his grandmother. He slept on a cot in a small opening between two bedrooms. He lived there for about a year.
Ocon struggled to adjust to life in what felt like a foreign country. He speaks Spanish but it’s a different Spanish than is spoken on the streets of Juárez. It took him three to four months just to get a phone.
He eventually got his own apartment and then a house. He earns a modest income doing custom leatherwork in his home — wallets, belts, motorcycle seats — a skill he developed in prison so he could make gifts for his daughter in Las Cruces. He sells those products to friends in the states.
For Ocon, the most difficult aspect of his imprisonment and deportation has been that they severed his relationship with his daughter. She is 16 and lives with her mom. Ocon’s relationship with her mom ended after he was incarcerated.
He hasn’t seen his daughter since 2008. She never visited him in prison. They used to talk by phone several times a week but that diminished as she grew older. She hasn’t visited him in Juárez, though he hopes she will soon.
“It breaks my heart,” he said. “As they say, out of sight, out of mind. You’re gone so long. I want to see my daughter grow. I’ve already missed a lot of years.”
Ocon sees other family members occasionally, though not as often as he’d like. His mother visits him every month or two. His sister who lives in Las Cruces visits every few months. His young brother recently visited from Arizona.
He watches the lives of family and friends on Facebook but can’t participate.
When Ocon was deported, he knew nobody in Juárez other than family. He resisted making friends. He has deliberately isolated himself. His fear of criminal activity in Juárez may seem paranoid until you hear that a cousin of his was shot to death there last year.
According to Ocon, the cousin was not involved in any illicit activity. He had a legitimate job, a family and children, but he made the mistake of going to the wrong neighborhood.
“He became part of the J-town sadness,” Ocon says.
When Ocon arrived in Juárez, he didn’t know if there were other deported veterans there. Eventually, he discovered he wasn’t alone. He connected online with the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, which acts as a shelter for deported veterans and provides support.
Through the Tijuana shelter, he learned about Jose Francisco Lopez, a deported Vietnam veteran who opened a shelter in his Juárez home in 2017. Lopez was deported in 2003 after serving time in prison on drug charges.
Like Ocon, Lopez didn’t know if there were other deported veterans in Juárez, but met the founder of the Tijuana shelter, who provided him names and phone numbers of deported veterans living in Juárez. That’s how he met Ocon.
Ocon began helping at “The Juárez Bunker,” as they call the shelter. Over time, his involvement increased and Lopez says they are now both directors and that when he dies, he hopes Ocon will take over the shelter — if he’s still living in Juárez, that is.
“The Bunker” provides deported veterans a place to stay when they are first deported. The house has four beds for veterans. Many of those veterans only stay in Juárez briefly, relocating to other parts of Mexico where they have family.
The shelter also provides help to two dozen or so deported veterans who live in Juárez. It collects donated food, clothing and other materials that it provides to vets in need. It sponsors meals for veterans on Thanksgiving and other holidays.
“We are like a family,” Lopez says.
Ocon helps veterans complete and file paperwork necessary for them to obtain veterans benefits. They stage events on military-related holidays such as Memorial Day to raise awareness of deported veterans.
Ocon participated in one such event that gained international attention.
Trying to come ‘home’
On Memorial Day in May 2017, Ocon and five other deported veterans gathered on the Cordova International Bridge in Juárez that leads to El Paso. Ocon stood in front beside a U.S. flag and two empty combat boots to represent soldiers who have been killed in action. The other five stood in salute. They all wore black “Deported Veterans” T-shirts.
The photo was distributed globally by Agence France-Presse and quickly went viral on the Internet.
The veterans who gather at “The Bunker” have become Ocon’s only real social network in Juárez, beyond his family. He intends to keep it that way. His priority is finding a way back to the United States.
His best hope for being able to return is legislation that was introduced into Congress last month that would help non-citizen veterans who have been deported or face deportation.
The bill, introduced by Texas Rep. Vicente Gonzales, D-McAllen, would prohibit veterans from being deported for most crimes and would enable deported veterans like Ocon to return to the United States and become citizens.
Under the bill, only veterans who commit murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, or acts of terrorism could be deported or forbidden from returning. Ocon would qualify to return and become a citizen under the terms of the legislation.
“I find it very shameful that we would deport somebody that wore our uniform and fought for our country,” Gonzales says. “If they were good enough to serve our country in uniform, they’re good enough to become United States citizens. I see them as proud Americans.”
Lopez, 74, founder of “The Bunker,” has lived in Juárez for 16 years and now considers the city home. He plans to die and be cremated there. He doesn’t want to his remains returned to the United States, because, he says, “I feel like I’ve been betrayed by the United States government.”
Ocon insists he will never allow Juárez to become home. He is resolute in his desire to return to the country where he lived most of his life. He says he’ll return eventually, legal or not.
“If I wanted to be there tomorrow I could be there tomorrow,” he says. “But I’m not going to do it that way. I’m going to do it legally.”
Blake Gumprecht may be reached at 575-541-5453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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