Ex-Marine deported to Mexico 15 years ago returns to US

SAN DIEGO — A former Marine who was deported to his birth country of Mexico 15 years ago because of a conviction for a minor offense returned to the United States on Thursday after winning his battle to regain permanent U.S. residency.

Marco Chavez said he felt speechless when he walked into the United States.

"I was in disbelief," he told reporters gathered outside a McDonald's several feet from the border crossing. "I believe it now that I am over here."

He said it will be an unforgettable Christmas because he will spend it with his family.

"I'll be able to wake up Christmas morning, hug them and let them know I'm home," Chavez said, his father standing by his side.

His father, Antonio Chavez, told reporters in English and Spanish that he was grateful to have his son finally home.

"I'm very thankful and happy," said Chavez, his voice quivering. His son then hugged him.

The return gives hope to hundreds of other deported U.S. military veterans, said Nathan Fletcher, a Marine combat veteran whose organization lobbied on Chavez's behalf.

"For those of us who have served and fought for this country, we can't rest until they all come home," said Fletcher, among the first to welcome Marco Chavez back with a big hug.

Fletcher, a former California state lawmaker, founded the Honorably Discharged/Dishonorably Deported Coalition.

"We are here today because a group of people said if you are willing to die for a country, that country would not leave you behind, that country would not let you be deported," he said.

Earlier this year at the request of Fletcher's organization, California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Chavez for a 1998 conviction for animal cruelty in a dog beating. Chavez said another person was responsible.

Months after he was pardoned, an immigration judge granted Chavez's request to return.

Brown, a Democrat, said Chavez "served our country, earned a pardon and deserves to come back home."

Chavez was a baby when his parents brought him to the United States. He joined the Marine Corps at the age of 19 and served four years during peacetime before he was honorably discharged.

He was sentenced to two years in state prison for his conviction but got out early for good behavior. A federal judge, however, used the conviction to deport him in 2002.

Chavez, who had three young sons, stayed in Tijuana. He said he had to learn Spanish and find work in a country that was foreign to him.

His wife moved the family to be with him but found life too difficult in the violence-plagued Mexican border city where schools are lacking and jobs are scarce. She eventually moved back to the United States, settling with his sons in Iowa after they divorced.

Chavez is now 45 and his sons range from 17 to 21. They last visited him in Tijuana in 2013.

His parents, who live in Los Angeles, would visit regularly. Chavez plans to live with them while he waits for his residency card to be replaced. He then will move to Iowa and try to rebuild a relationship with his children.

Among the few items he returned to the U.S. with was a red "Radio Flyer" wagon that he had carted his sons in when they lived in Tijuana with him. He kept the wagon in storage for 15 years and is looking forward to showing it again to his sons and now his three grandchildren.

He also hopes to someday become a U.S. citizen.