SAN DIEGO — After fighting in Afghanistan, former U.S. Army soldier Mauricio Hernandez Mata returned home with post-traumatic stress, which he says eventually led to getting in trouble with the law and being deported to Mexico — a country he had not lived in since he was a boy.

On Wednesday, he and another deported veteran were sworn in as U.S. citizens at a special naturalization ceremony in San Diego.

The two veterans were among 65 who have been allowed back into the United States over the past year ago as part of a growing effort by the Biden administration called the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative to make amends with immigrants who served in the U.S. military only to wind up deported.

Hundreds of U.S. military veterans, including some who were charged with crimes such as drunk driving or theft, have been deported over the years in what immigration advocates and others have called an unfair punishment to those who took up arms in the name of the United States. Many are still struggling to find legal help to return, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Deported veterans Mauricio Hernandez Mata, center right, and Leonel Contreras embrace after being sworn in as U.S. citizens at a special naturalization ceremony Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in San Diego.

“After my deportation, yeah, I never thought this day would come,” said Hernandez, 41, dressed in a black suit and tie after being presented his U.S. citizenship certificate. “It’s definitely been a long road. I’m glad that we were given a second chance as anybody that is either American-born or fought for America should have.”

Leonel Contreras, 63, who joined the U.S. Army at age of 17 and served for a year in 1976, also was sworn in at the ceremony.

“I feel very blessed,” said Contreras, who was allowed back into the United States about four months ago. “I feel very happy to be back on American soil.”

Both men spent the past decade living in the border city of Tijuana.

Contreras was whisked away by U.S. immigration authorities who detained him at the barbershop where he worked in National City, south of San Diego. His life forever changed.

He continued to work in Tijuana as a barber and found work because of his English at call centers helping answer questions from customers of U.S. companies. But it was not easy.

During that time his two sons grew up, and he now is a grandfather. With his U.S. citizenship in hand, he said he is not looking back.

“I just want to go to all the places I’ve dreamed of seeing, like the Grand Canyon and possibly Mount Rushmore,” he said.

Hernandez said his deportation came after unspecified “irreverent actions and mistakes I made due to my PTSD.” He declined to give more details. But he said after he was allowed back into the country a year ago, he was determined to get his U.S. citizenship to be able to go to the grocery store and not feel “terrified” of being picked up and sent back to Mexico.

His 7-year-old daughter hugged him after he was sworn in amid cheers from a crowd that included more than a dozen veterans from various branches. Then he turned and kissed his wife.

“I’ve always been an American, the difference is now I’m an American citizen and I have all the rights that any American born citizen has,” Hernandez said. “And it was important to me to have those rights just to prove the point, the point being that anybody that’s willing to lay down their life, their sanity, and give everything that they hold dear for American freedom should be eventually at one point in their lives considered a U.S. citizen.”

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