Congressman takes up plight of deported veterans

DONNA — The Pledge of Allegiance was the first order of business at U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s news conference about deported veterans. Despite the hardships those in attendance have faced with the justice system, they still held their hands over their hearts in a display of loyalty to their country.

Vela, D-Brownsville, held the event Thursday morning at the American Legion Post 107 in Donna. The topics discussed included why veterans are deported, how to prevent deportation and finding access to services such as health care.

“My view is anyone willing to sacrifice their life and is discharged honorably deserves a right to have a process toward citizenship,” Vela said. “I think their service to this country gives them the right to protection under the criminal justice system.”

Service members who are not citizens of the United States are often deported due to crimes they commit after returning home, but those infractions can be handled without forceful removal from the country, Vela said.

The story of Alen Blackwelder’s family is a real-life example of Vela’s statements. After voluntarily serving in Vietnam and North Korea, Blackwelder’s brother Alfredo Garcia came back with serious Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues and is still experiencing the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. His untreated mental health issues resulted in years of criminal activity and spending six years in the Port Isabel Detention Center. He was deported 10 years ago.

“It’s unimaginable that Alfredo Garcia went to North Korea on his own because he felt he could do a lot for his country, and then the country turned its back on him,” said Blackwelder, 44, of his brother. His hands were trembling as he spoke.

“According to the laws, the country always protects veterans,” said Garcia, 64, in a video addressed directly to the Congressman. “I’d like you to help me get back to the U.S. if I may, because I am not of good health right now. I was hoping you could help me out because I am in need.”

Vela promised to do everything possible to help their family. He had never heard their story before, but he said it is exactly what makes his efforts worthwhile.

Joe Segura, commander of the American Legion Post 107, regularly meets with families desperate for a solution to a relative’s impending deportation.

“So many of them are living in the shadows, afraid to come forward or come out of their house and just be in a vehicle,” Segura said. “They kind of do not trust our department of Veterans Affairs because they were turned away more than once.”

Part of Segura’s job is finding and reaching out to the veterans that do not utilize available resources, especially those who are not citizens. He has spent months at a time meeting with individuals and building a relationship so they feel comfortable with getting help.

“We are making them see that it’s OK to start living again,” Segura said. “It just takes time.”