The only way this former Marine was allowed home was in a casket
Veteran Lance Cpl. Enrique Salas' flag-draped casket was loaded into a hearse with a Marine Corps seal and two miniature American flags protruding from either window.
Salas finally made it home to the central San Joaquin Valley in California the only way he could.
The Persian Gulf War veteran, who was deported to Mexico in 2006, was buried with military honors in a Reedley cemetery on April 20 beside his younger brother, another fallen Marine.
"My parents gave two of their children to the Marine Corps, and now they've lost both of us," Salas once told the American Civil Liberties Union for a report titled "Discharged, then Discarded: How U.S. veterans are banished by the country they swore to protect."
"The veterans, they fought for the country," said Salas' sister, Miriam Rodriguez, tearfully outside St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Reedley. "Some made some mistakes, but they shouldn't be punished by being sent to a foreign country. He was here since he was a kid. He grew up here."
Salas, a graduate of Reedley High School, was recently seriously injured in a car accident in Tijuana, where he was living after he was deported.
Rodriguez said an emergency humanitarian parole visa was applied for after the accident and was granted 10 days later to transport him across the border to receive better medical care from the University of California, San Diego. While waiting, he suffered a heart attack, then another en route to San Diego, where he was pronounced brain dead. His sister called the treatment he received in Mexico "inhumane" and "awful."
Salas died April 12 at age 47.
Hardworking and funny, family and friends recall, Salas was devoted to his family and finding a way to return to them. His jovial, warm personality earned him the nickname of "Papa Bear."
"Unfortunately, we were not able to bring him back to the United States to seek the medical treatment that he's entitled to in time to save his life," said Ricardo Franco, chairman of the Committee on Deported Veterans under the Veterans Caucus of the California Democratic Party.
Salas is among up to 1,500 U.S. veterans who have been deported, Franco said, with an estimated 200 to 300 alive and known by the Committee on Deported Veterans.
Franco, who is running for Congress against incumbent Rep. Devin Nunes, said it's hard to get an exact number because immigration officials and the Department of Veterans Affairs don't keep track of how many deportees are veterans.
"Getting deported to a country that you don't really understand is one of the worst crimes that we can ever think of," Franco said, "and to think that this is happening to people who put on that uniform and swore allegiance to our country to protect it from every single other country on this planet – then we discard them like this, it's a national travesty and disgrace, quite frankly."
Franco was among around 150 people who attended Salas' funeral Mass, including friend and fellow deported veteran Hector Barajas.
Barajas, director of Deported Veterans Support House, made national headlines this month after Gov. Jerry Brown granted him a pardon that paved the way for his return to California. Last week, he became a U.S. citizen.
Barajas believes the same fate was in store for Salas. "He was one of the guys who was going to be able to come home. … We shouldn't bring these men and women home in a body bag."
Barajas said the Deported Veterans Support House is aware of more than 350 men and women who are being deported to 42 countries, or who have recently been deported.
Deporting a veteran
The ACLU report details Salas' story. It begins with his arrival in Los Angeles at age 6 with his parents and four younger siblings.
Salas wanted to be a Marine from the age of 11, when he saw a television commercial recruiting for the Marine Corps. He enlisted at age 17 and celebrated his 18th birthday in boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
Salas served four years' active-duty in security details in the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore. He was honorably discharged in 1992 after serving in the Persian Gulf War, his military record rife with commendations including National Defense Service Medal, Sea Service Ribbon, and Good Conduct Medal. He remained in the Marine Reserve until 1996.
However, the report goes on to say, Salas began to struggle with drugs, which he attributed in part to his military service. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Salas was convicted in 2004 for possession of a controlled substance for sale, which was flagged as an aggravated felony under amended immigration law that made his deportation mandatory.
He was arrested on the spot at a border checkpoint in December 2006 while trying to return home on a trip with family to Tijuana. Salas had asked for a replacement green card at the checkpoint after losing his wallet in Tijuana.
"Facing a long detention that would prevent him from providing for his family and without enough money to consult an attorney, Salas signed his own deportation order," the report reads. "He believed his military service and his grandmother’s status as a U.S. citizen would help, but it was to no avail.
"After 30 years in the United States, including four years of honorable active-duty military service, Salas was forced into exile."
Desperate to reunite with his family and provide for his two daughters, he reentered and was deported from the country two more times. After receiving a traffic ticket in 2014, the report states Salas was prosecuted on a federal charge of illegal reentry after a removal order and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
"The judge acknowledged Salas’ military record and work history, but under the 1996 immigration mandates, his hands were tied. 'I don’t know what you’re doing here,' the judge reportedly said. 'You don’t belong in Mexico, but I can’t do anything for you."
Waiting for answers
In Tijuana, Salas met other deported veterans through the Deported Veterans Support House. He was active with the group, attending as many of their events as possible in hopes he'd someday be allowed to return to his family in Reedley.
Through his own research, Salas learned he had been eligible to become a U.S. citizen upon discharge from the Marines. Had he applied for citizenship anytime prior to his 2004 conviction, he could have been a citizen, the report reads, "but he was never given what would have been life-changing information."
In Tijuana, Salas lived with a relative and worked for a plant that services and repairs industrial gas tanks.
He was unable to continue his treatment for PTSD in Mexico. He also suffered from back pain that may have stemmed from a car accident while in the Marines.
Franco said so much of Salas' life was stolen from him.
"We have to recognize this as that kind of travesty and correct it," Franco said.
Fred Martinez stood solemnly outside the Reedley church as the body of his second cousin was loaded into the hearse.
Martinez, also a retired Marine, said Salas' death "really hits me pretty hard."
"This is a bad way to get back to the states."