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Veteran from Madera was deported 17 years ago, Wednesday he was allowed to be with family

The Fresno Bee - 12/28/2023

Héctor López Guillén – a U.S. Army veteran who was deported to México more than 17 years ago – returned permanently to California on Wednesday, thanks to a humanitarian permit granted to him by the U.S. government to reunite with his family in the new year.

López is the 96th deported veteran to return to the United States through the administration’s humanitarian pardon and parole program to reunify military members with their families.

“If I was good enough to fight for the United States, I was good enough to be willing to die for the United States, then I am good enough to live in what I feel is my country,” said López as he crossed into California in company of his American citizen wife, María Guadalupe Sibrián López.

The veteran, who has been infected with Covid-19 20 times since 2020, said he does not know how he survived.

“Many times I thought that the only way he would return to California would be to turn me into ashes so they could bury me,” he said in Spanish when talking about that right that the U.S. government never denied to deported veterans.

Mixed feelings

In conversation, he said he was happy to know that he will return to play on a golf course in Madera, and to visit the first In & Out fast food restaurant that opened there.

Now López will see his children, aged 35 and 30, and will be able to meet with his mother, Gracia Guillén, aged 80.

But on the other hand, he remembered part of everything he lost while living in deportation. His father died in Madera and he was not able to see him, and he has not seen his children in person for 25 years. “We see each other live online and we talk, but it’s been a quarter of a century since I’ve been able to hug them,” he said.

He said that his children refused to look for him on the Mexican side of the border “because of the stereotype that some have given to (the city of) Tijuana.”

“My children thought they could be kidnapped. I told them to see how in all this time no one had kidnapped me, no one had shot me,” he added.

He also takes “an agricultural feeling” from Tijuana, where he lived since Dec. 20, 2006 when he was deported. The Veterans Department sends López his pension monthly.

“It’s not much, but if you live in Tijuana it’s enough to live on. In California it is not enough and that is why some are already thinking about whether they have the opportunity to return to the United States, he said.

Stranger in his native country

“I was born in (the state of) Michoacán and I can easily feel like a Tijuana native, but the people of Tijuana never saw me as one of them. They consider me a foreigner, as if I were a tourist. They even take my dollars at a lower rate. If I make a mistake when speaking, they call me ‘pocho’ (a derogatory term), “he confessed.

López served six years at a military base in Fresno, and was nearly sent to the occupation of Grenada in 1983.

Shortly after finishing his service, he made “a mistake with drugs,” as he told Agencia EFE, and was sentenced to more than eight years in prison. For good behavior he was released from prison in six years, only to be deported to Tijuana that same day.

Until then he never thought he could be deported.

“When they recruited me they told me that by serving the Armed Forces he was already a citizen. And yes, when you are in the military but also after serving you feel American. That’s what I feel I am; That’s why I was able to give my life for my country,” he said.

His wife, who for more than 12 years regularly traveled half of California to see him at the Mexican border, defends him against his drug violation, saying that military service “somehow turns them into men of war, ready to kill or be killed.”

“That changes them completely. They leave there with post-traumatic stress, with a tendency to violence, depression and anxiety, and then they look for an escape. But if they are arrested, like my husband, they are deported,” he added.

Robert Vivar, founder of the veterans aid center in Tijuana of which López was deputy director, said that the veteran’s return to California is especially significant because in the last two years he helped at least 25 other deported veterans return to the United States.

López, for his part, assured that the return of the deported veterans “is a fight that we are not going to stop, that I am going to continue in California, until the last of them returns.”

©2023 The Fresno Bee. Visit fresnobee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.