Manuel Valenzuela lives in a small house in the Hillside neighborhood, southeast of downtown Colorado Springs.
The scent of ribs cooking in the kitchen can be smelled from the living room, where a photo of Manuel's mother, age 12, hangs beside a picture of his father, age 17. Two roses hang between them. Military flags cover walls crowded with photos of grandchildren, yellowing taekwondo victories, and martial arts legend Howard Jackson. Cats wander in and out, sauntering through the weedy yard, and shimmying past the ripped screen door before pausing to roll solicitously on the couch.
In Manuel's tiny bedroom, there is a crisp Marine dress uniform, which he dons quickly for press photos. His eyes brighten. His smile grows wider and his chest puffs slightly. He likes the way he looks in the navy and white suit, and likes the way people look at him when he wears it.
Manuel, 63, and his brother, Valente, 67, were among four brothers to serve in the Vietnam war, each in a different branch. Valente, who is at Manuel's house today — sitting quietly on the couch as his more animated sibling talks — was in the Army.
At Manuel's urging, Valente also slips into his uniform, pins on his Bronze Star, and dutifully follows a photographer's directions. As they adjust their positioning, holding their eyes steady for the lens, it's difficult not to notice the contrast between the pomp of their military uniforms — the shiny buttons, the crisp white shirts — and the modesty of their surroundings. Clearly, military service was no golden ticket to a life without hard work and struggle. Ultimately, it may not even guarantee them the freedom, liberty or independence they fought for decades ago.
The brothers were stunned to learn of that possibility in 2009, when they received the same letter in the mail:
"NOTICE OF HEARING IN REMOVAL PROCEEDINGS," the first line read.
"IMMIGRATION COURT," read the second.
At first, each brother — mortified, confused, scared — told no one about his letter. Then Valente told Manuel. In response, Manuel handed over his own notice.
"He said, 'What did you do?'" Valente remembers. "I said, 'What did you do?'"
The real question wasn't so much about what either man had done but, rather, what country they were citizens of: the United States or Mexico. The U.S. government, as the notice made clear, considers them Mexican nationals. The brothers, however, had always believed they were U.S. citizens. They still do.
They were born to an American mother. Raised mostly on American soil. They went to American schools, fought an American war, paid American taxes. They have Social Security numbers. VA benefit cards. Driver's licenses. In 2012 Manuel's eligibility to vote came into question, but after providing documentation, he was cleared to go to the polls. Plus, none of their surviving Mexican-born siblings received immigration notices.
And one more thing: Valente says he's been told that he's eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery after he dies. (Based on his military records, Arlington confirms he'll be eligible at least to have his cremated remains stored there.)
"That's contradictory, right?" Valente asks. "The only right you have is to be buried here when you die."
But, as Valente and Manuel found out in years of court proceedings since 2009, two parts of their history may have the power to keep them in this country.
The first is their now-deceased American mother. The second is their military service.
Valente, Manuel and four of their 10 other siblings were born near the small farming town of Palomas Número Uno just across the Rio Grande from Redford, Texas, to an American mother, Maria de Socorro Rodriguez Valenzuela, and a Mexican father, Ricardo Valenzuela.
Valente, the oldest child, spent much of his time with his grandmother, a local medicine woman of Jumano Indian heritage. Together, they would travel the countryside on a donkey, delivering babies.
The Jumanos, like the Valenzuelas, were a tough people to pin down. According to the Texas Historical Association website, the Jumano Indians were spread between northern Mexico, New Mexico and Texas from the 1500s to the 1700s — when they suddenly disappeared from the historical record. Eventually, they were incorporated into the tribes of their conquerors, the Apache.
Like the Jumanos, Maria, who was born in Loving, New Mexico, had little regard for borders, traveling often between Mexico and the U.S. in her youth. Determined to do what was best for them, she also brought her six oldest children across the border.
Back when he was a young boy, Valente remembers her saying, "I don't want my children educated in Mexico because we don't have a good system here."
In fact, there really was no system. The family lived on a 60-acre ranch surrounded by fields of alfalfa and vegetables, but no school. And thus, when Valente and his sister Guadalupe grew old enough, their mother would take them across the river in a boat to attend elementary classes in the United States.
Valente remembers the immigration officials standing by, saying nothing.
But Maria knew her children would fare better in the States, and so, on November 30, 1955, when Valente was 7 and Manuel was 3, the family crossed the border legally in El Paso-Juarez to start a new life in Redford. They arrived in Juarez the night before, attended a late mass, then went to a park to sleep until morning.
Around 2 a.m. Valente felt someone carrying him. At first, he thought it was his father, but it turned out to be a gang of thieves and kidnappers, who had absconded with him and all the family's belongings. Panicked, Valente bit the man.
"He threw me on the ground and kicked me in the alley," Valente remembers. "And that's when he took off running. That's when my dad and the police caught up with me and I was in shock. I had blood all over me. I still have those nightmares. Someone carrying me."
When the family finally crossed the border, they were in a chaotic state, Valente remembers. The immigration officers passed around a hat to collect money for them. An uncle picked them up on the other side. No one, as far as Manuel and Valente know, noticed that the paperwork wasn't for citizenship. In fact, Maria was so shaken by the attempted kidnapping that throughout Valente's life she wasn't calm unless she knew where her eldest child was.
Life, however, was much less stressful in the States. Their father worked in agriculture, while their mother attended to their rapidly growing family. They moved from Texas to New Mexico, and eventually, when the boys were older, to California. Manuel and Valente went to school and did farm work with the rest of the family. The latter was a chore that neither liked, and even now Manuel will note that the course of his work life was largely dictated by a desire to "never pick another grape."
An uncle took over the ranch in Mexico. He ended up losing a son to the drug cartels when the young man refused to let smugglers pass onto his land.
"Mom used to tell us, 'See that's why I wanted you young kids out of there,'" Valente says. "She was already seeing the violence."
But Maria couldn't shield her boys from the harsher realities of life forever. When Manuel and Valente were old enough, they wasted no time signing up to fight in the Vietnam War.
It may come as a surprise to learn that noncitizens can serve in the military, but it's an effective route to naturalization, since special consideration is given to foreign nationals who are willing to risk their lives for this country.
Immigration processes have changed a lot since the Valenzuelas fought in the Vietnam War, but even back then, it likely would have been easier for the brothers to become citizens than it was for the average noncitizen.
According to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services fact sheet, a member of the armed services wishing to become a citizen must demonstrate: "good moral character"; knowledge of the English language; knowledge of the U.S. government and history; and attachment to the United States by taking an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. They're exempt from other requirements.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order giving all noncitizens who served honorably in the military after Sept. 11, 2001, a chance to immediately file for citizenship. Since Oct. 1, 2001, more than 107,398 military members have received their citizenship. In addition to making it easier for veterans to stay in the country, the government also puts less emphasis on kicking them out.
In 2011, John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, authored a memorandum explaining how ICE should "exercise prosecutorial discretion" in order to focus on "the agency's enforcement priorities." In the memo are several lists that lay out what makes a person a likely "priority" — or the opposite.
An official statement from ICE to the Independent states: "ICE respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving veterans. Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel. ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country on a case-by-case basis when appropriate. ICE specifically identifies service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised."
Among the top qualifications for favorable treatment are veteran status, long length of lawful status in the U.S., old age, and arrival in the U.S. as a child. Factors like those work in the Valenzuela brothers' favor.
Unfortunately, the brothers both also have a criminal history. And that means they meet one of the qualifications for being a deportation priority. That's true even though the crimes the Independent was able to document weren't felonies. An April 2014 New York Times analysis found "that since President [Barack] Obama took office, two-thirds of the nearly two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all."
Only 20 percent of those deported had committed serious crimes, including drug offenses.
Neither ICE nor Homeland Security can say how many veterans are deported each year; spokespeople for the agencies say they don't track the number. Various veterans groups, however, put the number in the thousands.
In 2009, the Valenzuelas' situation made the local news with a report on KRDO Channel 13 News. From there, media coverage spread internationally. They were in the Los Angeles Times, on CNN. A documentary of their story by award-winning filmmakers Carleen L. Hsu and John J. Valadez is in the works. For a couple of small-town guys who grew up on farms and spent their lives hammering wood, the Valenzuela brothers were superstars.
By 2012, the government stopped seeing the Valenzuelas as a "priority." Given the strength of their cases, they could have completed the appropriate paperwork and closed their cases, or even been granted citizenship.
But they didn't file the paperwork.
In 1970, Manuel was in love with a girl named Joyce, whose family didn't like him. He left California before graduating from high school, following her family when they moved to Texas. Her brothers threatened him, but he wasn't deterred. He signed up for the Marines in January 1971 and told her he'd be back for her.
Military service opened new worlds for both Manuel and Valente, who had grown up sheltered in small towns. Valente recalls the oddity of fighting for the U.S. even as the civil rights movements — including the Chicano movement — raged on.
"During those years, we were over there in Vietnam in the jungle, and the black people in Chicago, Detroit, New York, they were protesting. And the Hispanics over here, you know our people, were protesting in Denver," he remembers. "There was riots all over the U.S., and we were over there fighting for America. So it's kind of like a very, very confusing situation."
Manuel was in Vietnam, based in a ship off of the coast, for periods in late 1971 and early 1972. His crew ran rescue missions from helicopters.
"When a company got jammed up with the Viet Cong we'd go in there and help them out," he remembers.
But he wasn't there long. In early 1972, he says he was sent to help with a crisis in Pakistan, but it had blown over before they arrived. By 1973, he was back in California, where he married Joyce. But he had a year left of his service, which he spent guarding military equipment and operations. It was there, he says, that he met Howard Jackson, the now-deceased taekwondo and kickboxing legend. Jackson was training for a tournament and asked Manuel, who had just started to train in martial arts, to spar with him after they were done with work. Manuel agreed. It was one of those magical times — a brush with fame that's stuck with him throughout the years.
If Valente has stories like this, he doesn't tell them. The older of the brothers signed up for the Army in November 1965, and in 1968 he arrived in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by North Vietnam that initially led the U.S. and South Vietnam to lose control of several cities, but ended in a victory against communist forces, which suffered mass casualties.
"When we landed in the spring of '68 we had to run to the bunkers at the edge of the runway because the base was being bombarded," Valente remembers. "You can imagine how we felt. We were scared to death. ... From there, I practically spent four days in bunkers because we were being bombarded."
Valente says he ended up in the city of Hue, which was destroyed by communist forces who murdered thousands of civilians. It was a mess. He had to engage in hand-to-hand combat to survive. Valente, the quieter of the brothers, doesn't like to talk about why he got the Bronze Star. Asked, about it, he shakes his head slowly.
"Let's put it this way," he says. "The enemy came at me with a big machete, and I had to defend myself. I had a flashlight in my hand. That's the only thing I had, a flashlight. So I blinded him. I gave him a karate kick ... so I took the knife away from him and I sent him to the other world. That's why I'm here."
When Valente came home to his worrying mother, she sent her son back to his grandmother's house to be healed. He was there off and on for five years after the war, tracing the steps he had taken as a boy. It was his experiences with his grandmother as a child, he says — including delivering a stillborn baby — that helped him survive the carnage of Vietnam. He had seen blood before. He had seen death before.
But nothing seemed to heal Valente completely. He'd disappear to the mountains for years at a time. Of 40 years of working life on his Social Security record, he says, about 20 are unaccounted for.
"If you ask one of my brothers — he's the youngest one in the family — I tied him by his feet and I hung him on a tree and I took out a knife," Valente says. "I acted like I was going to cut him up. I scared the heck out of him, you know. I would do stupid things like that. And even now if I go to a certain place — it's not as bad as it used to be. But before, I would just avoid people in general. I can be around people now, but before I didn't want anything to do with family or anyone. And basically, that's why I went through two marriages, 'cause who would want to be married to a person that would sit up all night long and you couldn't say nothing?"
Over the years, Valente fathered four daughters and three sons. One of the boys passed away at 17.
Manuel got Valente into working construction — along with much of the rest of the family. (It was a sure way to avoid picking any more grapes.) Slowly, over the years, Valente's health declined. He now knows that he has PTSD.
Manuel, meanwhile, says he started his own taekwondo school in California when he returned from the war. He also went to college briefly and started his construction career. He had two children with Joyce before divorcing in the late 1970s. His own disappearing acts played a part in the end of his first marriage.
"There was times I would just take off for days and days and I'd come back and go 'What the hell am I doing?'" he recalls. "I didn't know. And there was no help at that time. When we got out — Vietnam veterans, there was nobody there for us. Now, I go to the VA, and Jesus. All the kids that get out now are getting a lot of help."
Manuel remarried in the 1980s and had two more children, then divorced again. He moved to Colorado in 1994 with two of his four children, and began another relationship with a woman that he says lasted nearly 20 years. He began his own drywall business, Top Gun Drywall. (The Secretary of State's Office has documents on the business from 2003 to 2004, though Manuel says it was still running in 2005.) His children grew, and gave him grandchildren, whom he trained in taekwondo. Things were going pretty well.
Then, in 2005, he says he was stopped for speeding.
Up until that point, both Valente and Manuel say they never realized anything was amiss with their citizenship.
But when Manuel handed over his license to the cop who stopped him for speeding, he was told it was no good — despite the fact that it didn't expire for years. He figured he owed child support.
Indeed, he did. So, he says, he paid it and headed down to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There, he says, he was told that Homeland Security had a hold on his name.
"I said 'for what?'" Manuel remembers. "And they said, 'Well your Social Security does not match your ID.' And I said, 'Bull.'"
For the next two years, Manuel says he survived without an ID. He was bouncing back and forth between government agencies, trying to get the identification needed to get his driver's license. In the meantime, he says he was unable to cash checks and his business failed. He says he tried visiting the governor's office, and contacting senators to no avail.
In 2007, he got a lawyer, who told him he was listed as having a permanent resident ID card and needed to have a new one issued.
"I said, 'I'm an American citizen, why do I need a permanent resident ID card?' And they said, 'Well, you got one. That's the only way you can straighten out your life.' I go, 'OK.' So I went and got it."
It seemed like the saga was finally over. Manuel began putting his life back together. He opened a taekwondo studio with his daughter-in-law in 2008.
Then, in 2009, he got the removal notice.
At first, Manuel was too upset to tell anyone in his family about the notice. Then Valente showed up at his door.
The notices informed the brothers that they could hire an attorney to represent them "at no expense to the Government." Failure to appear in immigration court in Denver on the appointed date would result in one or more actions, including being taken into custody by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or having the hearing held in their absence.
"An order of removal will be entered against you if the Immigration and Naturalization Service established by clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence that a) you or your attorney has been provided this notice and b) you are removable," it stated.
Manuel closed the taekwondo studio and stopped training his grandkids. Their grades dropped. Manuel's girlfriend was torn up about the notice and left him.
Their parents never knew about the notices. His father had been dead for a few years by then. He never told Maria. She died in January 2009, while he was in court fighting it. (The brothers believe their mother never knew about their citizenship dilemma. But ICE documentation suggests otherwise. Maria filed naturalization petitions for both sons in 1965, but both had already passed 18 years of age. The issue was never resolved.)
Manuel was due in court on March 31, 2009. Valente was due just a short while later, on May 6.
Both men were pursued because of old convictions on their criminal record, though they both say all charges against them were misdemeanors. ICE lists Valente's convictions as aggravated motor vehicle theft in 1998, theft of rental property in 1998 and third degree assault (domestic violence) in 2000. It lists Manuel's as battery on a police officer in 1990, obstructing a police officer in 1999, and resisting arrest in 2004. ICE did not know whether the crimes were felonies and could not say where they occurred.
The Independent requested the brothers' California criminal records through official channels but did not hear back before press deadline. An online search of their Colorado Bureau of Investigation records, however, yields a list of many crimes the brothers referenced.
Manuel has more than three pages of charges dating from 1998 to 2014 for everything from wiretapping to simple assault. Valente's record is nearly two pages long, spanning from 1996 to 2001, and includes everything from harassment (domestic violence) to theft of rental property. Their convictions, however, are for misdemeanors and traffic infractions. Manuel's are mostly tied to driving, including driving under restraint and driving while ability impaired, as well as some that involve interfering with police, such as obstructing a peace officer/firefighter. Valente has a greater mix of convictions, including third-degree assault, theft of rental property, speeding, driving while license under restraint, and driving while ability impaired.
After receiving the deportation notices, the brothers spent the next few years in and out of court.
"We were barely beginning to get back together in life," Manuel says. "When you get older, you go, 'Man I know where I'm at and more or less what I've been going through.' And then all of a sudden get a removal notice? It's like whamo, you're back into it. You go crazy, the things that you think about. You know, get a removal from a country that you fought for."
Documentation shows both Manuel and Valente have been diagnosed by the Veterans Administration with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder dating to their service in the Vietnam War.
Dr. Dan Reidenberg, the Executive Director of SAVE and a national suicide and mental health expert, says it would be a mistake to dismiss the brothers' crimes based on their PTSD; most people with PTSD are not violent or aggressive. However, he notes, PTSD can be a risk factor for criminal activity and it's absolutely a risk factor for addiction to substances like alcohol. (Both men have convictions related to alcohol, though they both say they've never used other drugs.)
"[W]hen you combine PTSD and an addiction, the risk is even greater that criminal activity or harm to others might occur," he says.
Manuel hired a lawyer from a place "across the street" from the Denver courthouse for his first appearance. But both men changed lawyers, as new ones agreed to take their case pro bono after seeing their story on the news.
Mariela Sagastume, an attorney with Ayuda Law Firm in Denver who is currently representing the brothers, says the case is a lot more complicated than it appears.
"At first glance, the case would seem to be kind of a no brainer, but trust me," she says, "if it was that, I would have resolved this a long time ago."
Sagastume says many people assume that since the brothers' mom, Maria, was American, her sons must be too. But the law is actually a lot more complicated on this point. Whether the Valenzuela brothers are granted citizenship based on their mother's citizenship actually depends on what an eight-page, confusing document called the "Tables of Transmission Requirements Over Time For Citizenship For Certain Individuals Born Abroad" has to say.
Here's the upshot: The law has changed over the years, so based on Manuel and Valente's birth years, Sagastume says, the law requires that Maria lived in the U.S. for 10 years prior to her child's birth, with five of those years happening after she was 16-years-old. Now, if Maria were still alive, it's possible that she could give sworn testimony that she met these requirements and her sons should therefore be granted citizenship. But since she's deceased, Sagastume says the only way to prove this is to pore over old records. Actually, she says, the Valenzuela brothers have done this to some extent. But it doesn't appear that their mom left much of a paper trail of her comings and goings as a youth, and she was known to travel between Mexico and America.
Raul Reyes, a New York-based attorney, journalist and television commentator who frequently speaks on issues related to the Latino community says it's possible that the brothers might still be able to qualify for citizenship based on their mom's citizenship.
"The regulations concerning the citizenship of those born abroad have changed over the years," he told the Independent via email. "However, the case law in this area has generally been consistently favorable to those seeking to legally establish their right to American citizenship. In a long line of cases, going back to [United States v. Wong Kim Ark] (1898), the Supreme Court has shown that it is reluctant to strip or deny anyone of their U.S. citizenship when they have an arguable claim to it. The caveat here is that mounting this type of legal challenge requires enormous resources, beyond what most people can manage."
The brothers say their last court appearances were scheduled in 2012 but that Homeland Security told them they should just go home. They were asked to sign paperwork, but declined to do so. ICE says that when the agency originally pursued the brothers, it was not aware of their veteran status.
"ICE learned of their military backgrounds from the lawyer of the brothers," a statement reads.
Sagastume says the process to apply for citizenship is expedited for veterans, but applicants have to be up-to-date on everything from taxes to child support, and they need a lot of official paperwork documenting their lives. Some papers must be certified, which involves fees that can add up quickly. (Though it should be noted that the government will cover some application costs on a case-by-case basis.)
Sagastume says before she took over the case, Homeland Security offered the Valenzuelas this option. But she says there must have been a miscommunication. The brothers believed they didn't need all the aforementioned paperwork. But they did. They were given some time to come up with it (usually it's 89 days, Sagastume says), but they weren't able to produce all the papers in time and they were denied.
Sagastume says the Valenzuelas could reapply. But they told her that they don't want to admit they weren't always citizens. And they also aren't comfortable with simply solving their own problem, even as other veterans continue to be deported.
"They believe it should be about a bigger cause; it shouldn't just be about two guys resolving their case," she says. "It's almost kind of a rebellious move at this point."
ICE states (and Sagastume agrees) that the brothers' "cases remain administratively closed before the Executive Office of Immigration Review."
It also notes, in a statement, that, "ICE Denver had suggested in 2010 that both brothers file an N-600 application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to pursue documenting their claim to U.S. citizen status. It is unknown by ICE if this required citizenship paperwork was not filed, or if it was filed and declined by USCIS."
What that means is the government isn't actively pursuing the brothers because they are no longer viewed as priorities. But unless the brothers pursue citizenship, there's an off-chance their cases could be reopened at any time, with the threat of deportation. That's especially true if the brothers are convicted of another crime. Manuel and Valente know that.
To Sagastume, the Valenzuelas' reluctance to pursue citizenship in light of the plight of others seems noble.
"It's almost kind of like they're willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause," she says. "I'm really impressed by them. They're my heroes."
Becoming press darlings gave Manuel and Valente an opportunity they had missed back in the Vietnam era: a chance to fight for civil rights.
They took it. Working around drywall jobs, they've shown up at conferences, parades and gatherings across the United States and in Mexico. They plan to attend an event in Tijuana soon. (While they don't have passports, the brothers can travel to Mexico with their permanent resident ID cards.) Over the years, they've met with activists and politicians. Many groups are trying to help deported veterans, and the Valenzuelas have worked with quite a few of them, to get the message out and help other veterans. But Manuel seems disillusioned with their ability to help in specific cases like his.
"They all start off like they want to do something," he says. "But when it comes down to it, who wants to fight Homeland Security?"
Still, he never tires of telling about how President Barack Obama shook his and Valente's hands and helped them unfurl their banner at one event in Washington, D.C. Or about how he and his young grandson interrupted a speech Obama was giving in Denver in 2011 by yelling at the top of their lungs — telling him to end the deportation of military veterans.
The Valenzuelas have a website, a Facebook page, and even promotional T-shirts. They say they want an executive order that would immediately stop the deportation of veterans, followed by a change of law that would ensure that all veterans were guaranteed citizenship.
Right now, the Valenzuela brothers have little idea what the future holds. The law could change, and welcome all veterans like themselves into the fold of citizenship. Their cases could be reopened, and they could be deported. There's a chance they could simply die of old age in America, their status forever in limbo.
But Valente says he's made one decision about where he's going. He decided not be buried at Arlington, he says. Instead, he owns the only mausoleum in Palomas Número Uno's tiny cemetery.
When he dies, he says, he'll be laid to rest there, on Mexican soil, with his American war medals pinned to his chest.