EL PASO , Texas -- A veteran of the U.S. Navy and Army National Guard who served a tour of duty during the Persian Gulf war finally came home to his family earlier this month after surviving a much different kind of struggle which lasted for 20 years.
Frank De La Cruz has considered himself a proud El Pasoan ever since he moved to the community from Juarez at just 6 years old.
After graduating high school in 1989, he left to go into the service.
However, after getting into trouble with the law, he found himself deported to Juarez, unsure of his future and afraid that he’d never be able to get back home.
“I had lost all hope," De La Cruz said. "I did not have any hope of coming back.”
De La Cruz was deported in 1998 after being charged with multiple drunk driving-related offenses.
Not long after landing back in Juarez, he found himself being hunted and aggressively recruited by local gangs.
“They seek you out and try to make you do bad things which I denied. I can’t do that,” he said.
However, De La Cruz said he and other deported veterans were still regularly followed and intimidated around town as gangs saw value in their military training.
Finally in 2016, De La Cruz was contacted by Jennie Pasquarella of the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and let her skills find him a way home.
With an energized base of legal support as well as vocal support from El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, herself a passionate advocate for deported vets, De La Cruz was finally taken across the border and given a citizenship test.
“It was so spontaneous," he said. "I did not think I was going to make it. I thought they were going to send me back to Mexico and then give me an answer later. But no, that same day I became a citizen then and there.”
De La Cruz added that his life is now transitioning to counseling, getting his drivers license, registering to vote and being a father to his three children.
He estimates that up to 15 other deported veterans just like him are still living in Juarez.
He said he will work to make sure lawmakers recognize them as well, with the hope that they too can someday come home.
ABC-7 reached out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa about the circumstances under which a formerly legal resident like De La Cruz could be deported.
She responded with this statement:
"Permanent resident aliens must meet specific criteria to be subject to removable proceedings under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Permanent resident aliens convicted of an aggravated felony are removable. Permanent resident aliens convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude within five years of their lawful admission to the United States are removable, and permanent resident aliens convicted of multiple crimes involving moral turpitude, not arising out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct, are removable regardless of how long they have been in the United States."
"However, the ultimate decision on removability is determined by an immigration judge in removal proceedings before the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review through a thorough review of the individual’s criminal and immigration histories."