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A Mexican immigrant here illegally just became a citizen, thanks to his U.S. military service

Daniel Torres, who was living in the United States illegally when he enlisted in the Marine Corps by using a false birth certificate, became a U.S. citizen this week.

Torres, who joined the Marines in 2007 and served in the Iraq War, was eligible for citizenship under special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allow for people who serve in the military during a period of hostility. It waives other usual requirements for citizenship, such as lawful permanent residence and physical presence in the United States.

Now 30, Torres has been living in Tijuana for the past five years. He was sworn in as a citizen during a 10-minute ceremony in downtown San Diego on Thursday.

Torres was more than three years into his military service when he lost his wallet and had to replace his identification. It was then that his story began to unravel.

After discovering Torres’ status, the Department of Motor Vehicles alerted his superiors. He said he was given an honorable discharge.

“When I enlisted in the Marines, I knew the risks. It was something that could come up; it was something that could come back and hurt me,” he said Thursday outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ downtown office. “I was just hoping that I wasn’t going to pay for that mistake for the rest of my life. And now I’m able to finally go home and live the life I feel like I need to.”

After his discharge, Torres voluntarily left the U.S. in 2011. He went to France in hopes of enlisting in the Foreign Legion but was unsuccessful because of the hearing loss he had suffered in Iraq, according to his attorney.

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Then he decided to return to the city where he was born: Tijuana.

Many deported veterans now live in Tijuana and in other regions of northern Mexico, often with the help of the Deported Veterans Support House, also known as “the Bunker.” The organization offers veterans resources as they get acclimated in Mexico; it is currently working with about 25 men, according to founder Hector Barajas-Varela.

Though Torres wasn’t deported, his case has helped revive a debate about whether deported immigrants who have served in the military — many in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — deserve to stay in the U.S.

But Torres’ case is unusual because he doesn’t have a criminal record. Most military veterans were legal residents who were deported because of criminal convictions, said his attorney, Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California.

Bill Rider, founder of the San Diego-based nonprofit American Combat Veterans of War, said he’s never heard of a case like Torres’, in which an immigrant who served illegally in the military becomes a U.S. citizen.

“I think it’s very unique, as a matter of fact,” he said.

Torres was brought to the United States as a teenager, after his father had obtained a work permit. His parents now live in Utah, and Torres has extended family members in San Diego.

For Torres, enlisting in the Marines had been a career goal.

“There’s always this taboo of people just coming to the United States, immigrants just coming over to the United States and taking advantage of the system,” he said. “I didn’t want to be another Mexican taking somebody’s job.

“I wanted to prove that I was willing to do something for this country, that I deserved the right to be in this country. We don’t choose where we are born.”

After his discharge, he said he didn’t have employment options in the United States.

“I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t get student loans. I couldn’t get a job. This was right after the economy was in a really bad moment, so there were no jobs to be had,” he said.

“I couldn’t live legally; I couldn’t live comfortably. It was very heartbreaking for me,” said Torres, who petitioned for U.S. citizenship at the beginning of the year. 

Torres, who’s in his last year of law school at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, plans to stay in Tijuana through December, until he graduates. He hopes to enroll in law school in the U.S. once he returns to the States.

tatiana.sanchez@sduniontribune.com

Sanchez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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