Alex Murillo never thought he would call Tijuana, Mexico "home." But the 36-year old former Phoenix high school basketball standout and Navy veteran is now stuck in this corner of Mexico.
"I'm a father. I'm a brother. I'm a son and I'm a patriot. My earliest memories are of the U.S.," said Murillo.
What happened to Murillo has also happened to an estimated several thousand other military veterans. It is only an estimate, because the Department of Homeland Security does not keep track of the number of veterans it deports.
"Nobody wants to approach this subject," said Victor Hinojosa, who is with the organization Veterans without Borders. It is an advocacy group for veterans who have been deported.
All of the veterans Hinojosa represents were in the United States legally when they joined the military, but they were not citizens. Federal law now makes it relatively easy for military service members to become citizens, if they are not already. But it was not always easy.
For one reason or another, the deported veterans did not become citizens. Later in life, each found himself in trouble with the law.
A statute passed in 1996 makes an aggravated felony a deportable offense for non-citizens. But what constitutes an aggravated felony is in dispute. The bottom line criteria is a crime that sends someone to prison for one year or more. Those crimes can include marijuana possession or shoplifting.
Alex Murillo from Phoenix said he was convicted of transporting marijuana.
"I'm very, very sorry for my mistake and it's cost me a whole lot now. But what I want to do is get a chance to get all that back," said Murillo, who was brought to the U.S. as a baby.
"I really feel that the system is very wrong," said Rafael Marron, a former Marine, who was convicted of a drug offense.
"I've been on the DMZ zone with North Korea. Doesn't that mean anything?" asked Marron.
"We're more American that some Americans who go to Canada," said the oldest veteran in the group that met with CBS 5 Investigates in Tijuana. He served in Vietnam.
"We feel like we've been convicted twice," he said.
But at this point, there is no legal path for any of them to return to the United States. The law has not changed since it was enacted and there are no exceptions for military veterans.
Advocates like Victor Hinojosa are hopeful someone in a position of power will take on the cause of the so-called deported veterans. But until that happens, he said he tries to get the men to be realistic about their futures.
"It's day to day for these guys to even eat," said Hinojosa. "We're trying to take care of them here, because like I told these guys, you may never get back."
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