County to explore creating veteran assistance office in Tijuana

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SAN DIEGO — County supervisors agreed Tuesday to explore the creation of an office in Tijuana to provide assistance to veterans who have been deported to Mexico.

On a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Kristin Gaspar absent, the Board of Supervisors directed the county’s chief administrative office to research the feasibility of opening a Vet Connect station at an existing facility in Tijuana. CAO Helen Robbins-Meyer is expected to report back to the board within 90 days.

The county Vet Connect program offers benefit counseling, along with information on public and housing assistance, Veterans Administration care, state veterans homes and employment.

A Vet Connect station in Tijuana would allow veterans to access the military benefits they are due after deportation, according to the county.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who proposed the expansion, said the move would help right the wrongs done to immigrant veterans who served in the nation’s military. Fletcher said during his time as a Marine in Iraq, he served side-by-side with non-citizens, “and there are no finer Marines.”

Fletcher said a large number of immigrant service members are incorrectly told their citizenship will be automatic — but once back in the civilian world, if they violate any laws, they can be easily deported.

He added that a majority of deported veterans “have a path back to this county — they simply have to die,” because they qualify for a military burial on U.S. soil.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, who served in the U.S. Navy, said he had no problem with the feasibility study, but questioned the focus on just one location.

“I fully support all veterans — deported or otherwise — who have earned their benefits,” Desmond said. “I think it’s a great idea but am hesitant to be as specific.”

Fletcher replied that if Tijuana isn’t the right place, then Robbins- Meyer will let the board know.

Desmond said the VA already has a process for immigrant vets, and can place them in an embassy or consulate until their status is resolved. He also said if the county gives money to a foreign country, it could lose oversight of how it’s spent.

He and board Chairwoman Dianne Jacob said the matter of immigrant veterans and their citizenship is ultimately a federal issue. Before voting, supervisors heard from several immigrant veterans, including a man who started the Tijuana facility, also known as “The Bunker.”

Hector Barajas said he and others have documented “hundreds if not thousands” of veterans who were deported, including one man who served in the Vietnam War but recently died of heart-related issues in Mexico due to his immigration status.

“Today, you can be on the right side of history,” Barajas, a former deportee who is now a U.S. citizen, told supervisors.

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