U.S. veteran to walk 2,000 miles for deported troops
Ramon Castro started Monday on a walk from Friendship Park on the San Ysidro border near San Diego — with plans to keep going.
He’ll head east along the border for 1,954 miles and 45 days, until he reaches the end of the U.S. border with Mexico, near Brownville, Texas.
Castro, a Brawley City Council member, will join the twice monthly board meetings via Zoom while on the road.
“My family thinks I’m crazy,” Castro said. But he is letting his feet do the talking, as well as the walking.
Castro, who served in the Marine Corps for eight years and was in Kuwait during the Iraq War, is walking the border to focus attention on noncitizen U.S. veterans who have been deported for committing crimes.
Often the offenses are minor crimes related to drugs or alcohol; they may be tied to physical and mental disabilities suffered during military service — PTSD, anxiety, mood disorders or chronic pain.
When deported, they lose access to the Veterans Administration medical facilities and benefits they earned and, in some cases, desperately need.
The walk was planned after the death of 52-year-old Erasmo “Mito” Apodaca on Mother’s Day. Apodaca, who had a green card, was deported to Mexico for a 1998 domestic violence incident.
He since had re-married there and had an 8-year-old daughter. For more than 22 years, Castro said, Apodaca had been fighting for permission to return to the United States, where he grew up and where his extended family lives.
He died in Mexicali, apparently of a heart attack. Only three days earlier, he had received clearance to start the process of returning to the United States, Castro said. His U.S hearing was set for July.
“He suffered from PTSD and needed physical and mental health treatment, and he wasn’t able to receive it in Mexico,” Castro said.
Every Memorial Day, Castro and his friends walk 7.5 miles through Brawley to honor departed U.S. military and veterans. As he did this three weeks ago, Apodaca’s death weighed heavily on his mind.
“The idea came up during the walk. I wanted to do something impactful to bring about the change we are seeking,” he said. So the 45-day border trek, “Walk the Line: A March to Bring Our Deported Veterans Home,” is dedicated to Apodaca.
“He is the one who inspired it,” Castro said. “If he had been helped sooner, and if he had access to VA medical care, he might still be around.”
Along the route, Castro will stop and give talks in major towns, visit American Legion posts and walk across the border to tour two Mexico shelters that serve deported U.S. veterans.
“They should all be pardoned because, if not for this failed system, they would be American citizens, and we would not be talking about it. It’s a real embarrassment ... that we just discard them in that manner.”
As Americans, if they committed a crime, they would serve their time and get to start over in the United States upon release, he said.
Castro recently founded the American Veterans Homefront Initiative, a call-to-action to the U.S. government to address this issue.
He has three goals: to streamline the process so service members and veterans can become citizens immediately; to halt deportation of American veterans; and to pardon those who have been deported so they can return to the United States.
Several congressional bills have addressed the problem but, to date, have had little success.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) joined Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), in February in re-introducing their Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act. Takano called it a disgrace that veterans are falling through the cracks of the immigration system and being deported.
The bill aims to prevent deportation of noncitizen vets, improve the tracking of their immigration proceedings and bring eligible deported veterans back home.
There isn’t adequate tracking for deported veterans who held green cards and were legal U.S. residents, and the number is unknown. Castro said he has seen government estimates ranging from 95 to 300, but he believes there could be thousands. The Department of Defense says 25,000 noncitizens now serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Castro is undertaking his walk during peak summer temperatures with little time to train. But he is an electrician by trade and lives and has worked in construction in Imperial Valley, so he is confident he can handle the heat. “It’s just a nature walk if you compare it to what my colleagues and other Marines had to do in combat,” he said.
He’s packing light, taking only water and snacks, and wearing a tracking device. A vehicle will follow his route carrying gear and supplies. Other walkers will join him at points along the way.
Castro hopes to average 35 miles a day and arrive in Brownville on Aug. 11. “I didn’t plan it, but I’ll finish on my birthday. I turn 43 that day.”
One of the five major stops on his route will be the Mexicali cemetery where Apodaca is buried. His sister, Norma Apodaca, of Alpine set up a GoFundMe account to help her brother’s widow, their young daughter and his three older sons.
She posted: “His No. 1 priority was to bring his wife and kids to USA land which he was proud to have fought for. Now his wife mourns her loss, living in their Mexicali, BC home with their 8-year-old daughter. Erasmo was their source of support working here and there in Mexico to make ends meet.... He never stopped fighting to return back to the U.S.”
Bell writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.