Gov. Jerry Brown, in a spring tradition timed to coincide with the Easter renewal, extended pardons Saturday to three people who served in the U.S. military but were deported to Mexico after completing sentences for various crimes.
The three cases were part of the 72 pardons and seven commutations Brown issued ahead of Easter, the majority covering old crimes dealing with drugs and other lower-level offenses.
Brown said the former service members were honorably discharged and promised citizenship for their service but nonetheless were deported. One of the men, Hector Barajas Varela, served more than a year in prison after being convicted of shooting at an occupied home or vehicle, and went on to found the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, to help deportees adjusting to life there.
Barajas, 40, who came to the United States at 7 years old without authorization, enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in Southern California. He was honorably discharged after serving with the 82nd Airborne Division and receiving Army humanitarian service and good conduct medals.
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In a telephone interview from Tijuana, Barajas said he developed a substance abuse problem after leaving the Army and claimed he was a passenger in a car – not the shooter – in the incident that sent him to prison. Upon release in 2004, he was turned over to immigration authorities and deported to Mexico.
“I don’t feel any less American because of a mistake I made,” said Barajas, who went on to work in the Tijuana center that helps other deported veterans with housing, directs them to mental health services, and aids them in applications for military pensions or other eligible benefits.
Barajas, who has a 7-year-old American daughter and parents and siblings living in Los Angeles, said he is applying for U.S. citizenship. Before deportation, he had been granted residency and a work permit. Barajas, who speaks better English than Spanish, said he isn’t sure he will be able to return. But he said Brown’s pardon gives him hope.
“We need to reflect on what we did and take responsibility,” Barajas said. “People say you made a mistake – a big mistake – but this shows you’ve been rehabilitated. You’ve made amends, whether you are in Mexico or in the United States.”
In his pardon message, Brown said Barajas “has shown since his release from custody he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen.”
Both the California Department of Justice and the FBI are to be notified of the governor’s pardon, but it comes with no promise of being allowed to return.
However, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the pardons for the three veterans are “a recognition that the individuals served their country and deserve a second chance and a second look.”
Also pardoned was Erasmo Apodaca. A Marines Corps veteran who earned a national defense service medal, Apodaca was convicted of burglary in Kern County in 1996 for stealing $500 worth of belongings from a former girlfriend’s house while intoxicated, according to the Governor’s Office. He served 10 months in prison before being deported.
The third deported veteran to get a pardon was Marco Chavez, a Marine Corps veteran who was honorably discharged after four years but was convicted of animal cruelty. Medina, who had spent much of his life in Los Angeles, was sent to Mexico in 2002 after serving 15 months in prison.
The pardons were applauded Saturday by a San Diego-based group called “Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported.” The group supports citizenship and opposed deportation for undocumented immigrants who served in the United States military.
“Gov. Brown today has show compassion for California veterans and their families and taken bold action that highlights the plight of deported veterans,” said the group’s chairman, Marine Corps veteran Nathan Fletcher, who previously served in the state Assembly.
Of the seven commutations to inmates Brown issued Saturday, six will have a chance to make their case for release before the Board of Parole Hearings. Among those whose sentences Brown agreed to commute are a teenage mother who killed her newborn child after giving birth in a bathtub; a man imprisoned for 37 years for killing another man in a fight at the age of 19; and a woman sentenced to life without parole for orchestrating her husband’s death.
The latest batch of remissions brings to 926 the number of pardons Brown has issued since 2011, when the Democratic governor returned to the office. He has granted nine commutations. While his immediate three predecessors combined for 28 pardons, past governors were in line with Brown, with each giving out hundreds.
The privilege is reserved only for those who have lived crime-free for a decade, completed their sentence and received a court-issued certificate of rehabilitation, provided they they still live in California. Among the potential benefits of receiving a pardon is being able to own a gun or serve on juries.
Brown on Christmas Eve issued 112 pardons and one commutation, after granting 59 gubernatorial pardons last spring and 91 the previous winter holiday. The approach of allowing criminals who have reformed their lives to wipe the slate clean is consistent with Brown’s broader efforts to change the justice system.
Last fall, he successfully campaigned for a fall initiative to change parole rules for prisoners, after shifting responsibility for lower-level offenders to counties. Speaking to crime victims this month in Sacramento, Brown said when officials lock up an offender, “it doesn’t mean the end of the story.”
“We have to do everything we can to change people,” Brown said of rehabilitation programs. “You can’t change everybody. But you can change quite a number.”