A former US border patrol agent who routinely deported people before he learned that he was an undocumented immigrant and lost his job is now trying to help veterans facing deportation, according to a new media report.
In what is perhaps one of the most unusual of the 11m cases backlogged in the complex American immigration court system, 54-year-old Raul Rodriguez had spent much of his professional career working at two federal agencies which frequently encounter people trying to enter the US without permission.
The American navy veteran personally estimates that he helped deport thousands of people as a Customs and Border Protection officer interpreting immigration law – at the Gateway International Bridge connecting Mexico to the US in Brownsville, Texas – and before that with the federal immigration and naturalization service. But his law enforcement career ground to a halt after he filed a visa application for his brother, and federal investigators checking his background confronted him with a Mexican birth certificate with his name on it in 2018.
Rodriguez later confirmed with his father that his American birth certificate was a fake and that he was a Mexican national in the US without permission. Border patrol fired him, saying his lack of US citizenship made him ineligible to work there. His friends and former colleagues at the agency spurned him, and immigration authorities began working to deport him.
“You’re losing your identity,” Rodriguez recently told the military news outlet Stars and Stripes when asked about his career’s abrupt end. “All I saw was that my badge was lost, then I didn’t have my badge and my gun any more, which plays a huge role in law enforcement.”
Advocates for Rodriguez later argued that his past work for the US government could make him a target either for the violent drug cartels controlling Mexico’s drug trade or other criminals south of the American border. They also noted that he had a clean military record and his wife, Anita, a US citizenship and immigration services employee, was an American citizen.
An immigration judge in November ultimately granted Rodriguez what is known as a cancellation of removal, which gives him the chance to become a legal US resident. But only 4,000 such cases are approved annually, leaving Rodriguez to wait for a time.
CNN reported Sunday that Rodriguez is spending at least some of that wait volunteering for an organization named Repatriate our Patriots, which aids people who served in the American military without having permission to be in the US and are now facing deportation.
The group’s chief operations and outreach officer, Diane Vega, reached out to Rodriguez after his wife wrote about him on social media a few years ago. Out of work and collecting disability benefits stemming from a head injury during his navy service, Rodriguez agreed to use his knowledge of the immigration system to help advocates track down veterans in immigration custody, according to CNN.
He has also spoken with deported veterans who have only returned recently and are struggling to get a foothold, CNN reported.
Rodriguez told CNN he realizes it is ironic that he once made his living deporting people but is now “trying to bring them back”. While he still believes immigration laws should be obeyed, he said he now grasps that even migrants trying to follow the rules down to the letter face major impediments.
“I was blind,” Rodriguez said of his earlier life. “I didn’t see what was going on.”
He added: “I’ve been on both sides, and I sympathize … even more now because of what I went through.”
Vega told CNN that, in her eyes, the shift in Rodriguez is genuine.
“He has changed,” Vega said. “There’s still some weight on his shoulders, but it’s not like before.”
The efforts of Rodriguez, Vega and Repatriate our Patriots these days are unfolding after the Joe Biden White House in 2021 unveiled an initiative to help deported American military veterans return to the US. Federal officials have said more than 65 veterans have returned to the US under the initiative, according to CNN.
Though officials tout the initiative’s resources online, Vega told CNN that she suspects there are thousands of veterans who have either been deported or are in immigration detention and aren’t getting the help they need from the government they once served.
“If [the government] treats its own patriots like this, can you imagine what it will do to its people?” Rodriguez said to CNN. “It’s a disgrace.”
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