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Deported mom returns to San Diego after more than a decade

Yolanda Varona greets her daughter. Varona's husband stands nearby.
Standing just outside PedEast at the port of entry in San Ysidro on Friday, Yolanda Varona holds her daughter, Paulina Young, for the first time since 2010. Varona’s husband, Hector Barajas, a U.S. Army veteran, stands nearby.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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As an advocate for deportees and family reunifications, Yolanda Varona was able to witness some of the stories of deported veterans and mothers who after years of strife managed to return to the United States with their families. Friday was her turn.

Varona, deported to Mexico in 2011 after living in the U.S. for 18 years, was able to hug her daughter for the first time in more than a decade. The emotional reunion took place outside the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing, minutes after Varona returned to the country with a humanitarian parole.

“It was like being born again,” said Varona, describing the moment she was able to hold her daughter.

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Varona requested parole under the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI) as a spouse of a former U.S. military member.

Under the initiative, the U.S. considers parole requests case by case from certain noncitizen military service members and their qualifying family members, including those who seek to enter the country.

Varona is married to U.S. Army veteran Hector Barajas, who started a support house for deported veterans after his own deportation. The couple met in Tijuana. Their activism brought them together, as Varona ran a support group for deported mothers.

Barajas enlisted in the Army in 1995. According to the ACLU, which assisted with his case, Army recruiters led him to believe that honorable service would result in citizenship.

He was honorably discharged in 2001, but fell into trouble with the law. He was imprisoned for two years, then deported in 2004.

With the help of the ACLU, Barajas returned to the country as a U.S. citizen in 2018.

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On that occasion Varona accompanied him as far as she could to the border. Friday, Barajas did the same with his now wife. But this time, the couple crossed together.

Yolanda Varona
Yolanda Varona greets her family upon arriving in the U.S. on Friday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I am very excited and happy. It has been a long-time battle,” said Barajas, who cried when he saw his wife stepping on U.S. soil.

Varona was deported Jan. 1, 2011, after she returned to the country through the Tecate port of entry. When officers ran her information, they discovered she had been living in the country on a tourist visa, she said.

That day her life changed, but she found hope in helping others, she said. With the Dreamers Moms group in Tijuana, she helped other deported mothers find various services, including legal assistance.

As a result, four mothers were able to return before she did, and four others are waiting their turn, she said. Their success stories motivated her. She acknowledged that for a time she had lost hope that she would one day return to her family.

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But on Thursday, Varona received a call from the ACLU, which also helped with her case, telling her the good news. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The first thing I did was go back to sleep. I wanted to fall asleep so I could wake up and open my phone again and read that it was true.”

Yolanda Varona hugs her daughter
Yolanda Varona on Friday hugs her daughter, Paulina Young, for the first time since 2010.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Her daughter, Paulina Young, 31, described the reunion as “surreal.” She said that now she wants to create a new bond with her mom, as they have been apart more than a decade. “I was 19 when that happened (…) it’s just getting to know each other again.”

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