Mario Martinez is an Army veteran who, in the 1980s, honorably served in the 82nd Airborne Division for six years. He is also an immigrant, coming to Southern California at the age of four with his family from Mexico. He was able to enlist in the military as a green card holder.

But after leaving the military, Martinez was later convicted of a felony, serving four years in state prison for an assault conviction in a 2008 domestic violence case. He had been upset by a friend’s suicide and got into an altercation with his then girlfriend. He served his sentence and was released. 

Since then, he’s been in another fight — avoiding deportation. After walking out of prison, Martinez was picked up by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents and spent another 10 months in a detention facility. Although released in 2014, he continues to battle in court for the right to stay in this country.

Martinez was among those participating in the Leave No One Behind campaign calling attention to the plight of veterans who have honorably served in the US military but find themselves — for various reasons — either deported or facing deportation.

One of the latest murals was installed in Sylmar on Monday, May 31, on an outside wall of the Sam’s Donut and Coffee stand.

Martinez, who spoke at the installation, unhesitatingly admits to his conviction and serving prison time for it. But, he said, one mistake should not enable the government to take everything from him — including his home, veterans benefits and social security — and expel him from US soil.

“I’m currently in deportation proceedings which I’ve been fighting, basically, for years,” Martinez said. “I’m a legal permanent resident. I’ve requested a pardon two times from Gov. Newsom’s office, but I haven’t heard anything. I was supposed to go to court again this year but they changed the date to next year.

“My mom just recently passed from COVID. I have a sister who is ill with cancer; a stepdad who is also ill. It’s one of the reasons I need to stay in this country. I’ve got children and grandchildren who depend on me. I’ve been here a long time and would love to stay in this country, and I’m doing everything I can to fight this deportation.”

He described his time in the ICE detention center as being “worse” than his incarceration. “I was immediately picked up [upon his release from prison],” he said. “They chained me up like an animal, shackled at my feet and bound at my waist and handcuffed…the attitude of the police and security there was very cruel.” 

The Leave No One Behind mural project is led by a coalition of veteran support groups, immigrant organizations and others using multi-sited public art projects to urge the Biden administration and Congress to enact a new, evolved immigration policy.

The coalition wants President Joe Biden to sign an Executive Order, and for Congress to pass the New Way Forward Act (HR 536) to end family separations, provide a method for family reunifications, and legalize the Childhood Arrivals and DACA “Dreamers” already in the United States.

Since last year, this and other similar murals have been installed in the California cities of Compton and Bakersfield, and other states including New York, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Washington, DC.

There have been thousands of immigrants who have served in the military, often recruited with the promise that such service would lead to US citizenship. Too often, that promise was not kept.

While exact figures are not available, a 2019 report by the federal Government Accountability Office stated that between 2013 and 2018, 44,000 non-citizens had enlisted in the military, according to the report. In that five-year span, the GAO found files for 92 veterans who were deported. Advocate organizations estimate the number is higher, at least in the hundreds. And if a veteran has legal issues like Martinez, he or she could be deported if they had spent 365 days in jail.

Many deported veterans already had mental health issues, substance abuse and PTSD from their service, and the deportation has piled on more unneeded stress to their lives.  They struggle to find employment and can face danger from the cartels who forcibly recruit them for their military skills. 

For some who grew up in the USA, they may have lost their ability to speak Spanish and being returned to Mexico makes it a country they can’t navigate — a situation faced by other veterans who were deported to other countries. There are deportees who have formed their own organizations and hold their own ceremonies during Memorial Day and Veterans Day to honor their “brothers and sisters” back home. Some groups in Tijuana have created housing for veterans known as “bunkers,” but the demand is always greater than the availability. 

LA City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, whose 7th District includes Sylmar, said Monday the cause for more protections and reforms for deported veterans “is very personal” to her.

“I am the daughter of a ‘green card’ veteran who served in Viet Nam,” Rodriguez said. “A man whose service came without citizenship, but came because of the privilege and honor it was for  he and his family to have an opportunity to have their life [here].

“Sadly, so many of our veterans who continue to serve our country selflessly are under the duress of deportation. Many of them have found themselves to be in the presence of a country that they don’t know any longer. For that reason I join in this effort…to seek the support and the help of Congress and the Biden administration to assure that any man or woman who serves our country honorably not be under duress of deportation.”

Kathleen Harris, representing the coalition, said the project “lifts up the stories” of deported veterans.

“These veterans consider themselves Americans,” Harris said. “They served the country they grew up in. We need to bring back humanity to immigration, and to the criminal justice system.”

Diana Martinez contributed to this story.