Conversation with Robert Vivar, Activist and Leader in Tijuana, Mexico

In this conversation, I speak with Robert Vivar, director of the Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center, as well as the coordinator of ViaCafe’s new Charlamigos program. Both of these non-profit organizations are dedicated to bettering the lives of the migrant, deportee, and local communities in Tijuana and throughout the border regions of Mexico. The Unified U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center has the goal of providing assistance to US veterans deported to Mexico from the United States, as well as supporting other marginalized groups through activism and grassroots efforts. ViaCafe is an on the rise non-profit organization based in both San Diego and Tijuana with the goal of connecting and fostering dialogue between individuals in the US and deportees and migrants in Mexico. 

In Spanish, a “charla” is a chat or conversation, and “amigos” means friends, so “charlamigos” is a chat with a friend. The charlamigos program pairs English-speakers in the United States with migrants and deportees in Tijuana that offer their time as one-on-one Spanish tutors for a small fee. our conversation, in addition to discussing ViaCafe, we spoke about the structural failures that have led to the deportation of hundreds of veterans across the world, as well as possible hope for the future in the form of legislation in the US House of Representatives. 

Latina Republic: First tell me about your background, what led you to become an advocate and activist for migrants and asylum seekers and specifically deported veterans in Tijuana? 

Robert Vivar: What led me to become an activist for migrants, deportees and veterans was that seven years ago I was deported, and after being deported I initially had a very difficult time adapting to a new life in the country that, although I was born in, was not really my home. And one day walking out of a church service, I walked into a sign in a door that said “deported veterans”. There happened to be a tiny, one person veteran’s organization that had just opened up their doors next to the church. I had already heard while I was in detention fighting my case that there were a lot of deported veterans here in Tijuana and in the Tijuana area. Even though I’m not a veteran, it was very interesting to me because my son is active duty military and I have an older brother who is a Vietnam war combat veteran, and another brother that passed away who’s also a veteran. So it was something that caught my attention.

When I walked in I learned that the office was just starting up. It was an office dedicated to assisting veterans here in the region. Through them I came in contact with Enrique Morones from Border Angels. And that also caught my attention because Enrique Morones and I had been coworkers back at LAX several years prior to that, working for Aeromexico Airlines. And I know that Enrique was working with deported and migrant communities, so I got in touch with him and he put me in touch with his representatives here in Tijuana, and I started hanging around with them. They started taking me around to some of the different areas where they were volunteering – one of them is Friendship Park. After that, to an area down towards the border, which is kind of like a migrant camp. And on Sundays a pastor from San Diego would come down and do a service for a couple hours and then he would meet the migrants. So I started getting very involved with that and also we started getting involved going into the canal to give donations, to give food, clothing, and I started working with deported moms with US citizen children. I started getting heavily involved because the more I got involved in this type of work I found that it was becoming a lot easier for me to get through the day if I kept myself busy helping others in my same situation. So that just motivated me to continue my struggle to return home. 


Photo, courtesy Robert Vivar, a demonstration at Friendship Park.


Latina Republic: What are the services that the United Deported Veterans Resource Center provides – what is the mission of the organization? 

Robert Vivar: The mission of the resource center is two-fold, and encompasses a lot of different things. The number one main mission is to assist deported veterans in integrating into the community as productive members. Doing that is the only way that they can survive to continue to work towards what is the second part of the mission – to return home legally one day. So mission number one is to be productive here in town and mission number two is to return legally to the US one day. To me it’s very important because you cannot adapt and become a resident of Tijuana or of whatever place you have been deported to, because that is going to lessen your chances of being able to return legally to the United States. 



Latina Republic: Could you tell me the history of why there are so many deported veterans, especially in Tijuana, and why it is so hard for them to legally return to the US? 

Robert Vivar: The main problem with the reason for the deportation of veterans is ultimately the same issue as the deportation of families that have US citizen children, and that’s the immigration reform act that was signed back in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. Up until that point, in order for you to be deported, to have your residence revoked, you had to have committed a very heinous crime. And at that time immigration judges had a lot of discretion in the way they handled the cases going before them. After 1996, that law was completely abolished – immigration judges were no longer given the discretion to take into account military service, equity such as families living a long time in the US, paying taxes, being productive – all that did not matter anymore. And to make things worse, the act extended the scope of deportable crimes and came up with a category of crimes called an “aggravated felony.” The way the law states it, if you’re convicted of an aggravated felony you are deportable without any chance of any kind of relief, no ifs or buts.

If you are prosecuted and found guilty you are deported and there’s no chance of you coming back. In the past it had to be a heinous crime, now with this classification anything that gets you sentenced for 365 days or more is an automatic aggravated felony. To give you an example: if you get a DUI and then all of a sudden you get a second DUI now you’re sentenced to more than 365 days; that’s an aggravated felony. They also came up with a category called “Crimes of Moral Turpitude” for example – and this doesn’t even have to be sentenced to 365 days or more – just a simple misdemeanor or a simple two misdemeanors constitute an aggravated felony. For example if you had a shoplifting experience – you stole a candy bar and you got arrested for it, even though you maybe didn’t do any jail time it still went on your record. Let’s say a couple years later for whatever reason you went back in and stole another candy bar; even though it was two offenses of less than a dollar, those are two crimes of moral turpitude, so misdemeanors, but because of that classification now you are automatically deported without any chance of any kind of relief, regardless that you may have lived in the US since you were a child, or your family members are US citizens, you worked all your life; it doesn’t matter. That classifies as an aggravated felony and you are going to be removed. 

And that applies to veterans. At this point we don’t believe that the government, at the time that this was signed on, even thought of or considered that veterans who were willing to give their life for the United States, who were willing to go to war for the United States, would fall into this category. We would hate to believe that they did it knowingly, but regardless they did it and veterans are not excluded from this type of injustice. Now since 1996 and lately, in the government accounting report, it was determined that veterans that were facing expulsion, that were facing their legal residence being revoked, had to go through a special process that required a supervisor at Homeland Security to sign off on their deportation. Service and family ties were supposed to be taken into consideration. According to them there had to be some kind of discretion that needed to be used but the reality is that most veterans were deported regardless of their military service – whether they were honorably discharged, whether they fought in combat, whether they were injured in combat, or even if they received many awards for bravery. 

Part of the problem that we’ve experienced is that when you enter the military what kind of training do you receive? You’re trained to be violent, you’re trained to be aggressive – you’re trained to kill. And on the weekends what do service persons do? They go out on the town and most of the time they drink, they get rowdy. That’s part of the military culture. Many of them are asked to go overseas to work, many are asked to kill. Many of them see their friends cut down in front of them, dismembered. And the sad part about it is that when they exit the military, they’re not given the opportunity for any type of readaptation period or to have an emotional-psychological evaluation to make sure they can integrate back into the community without having their military service affect them; in other words, not having their PTSD flare up, traumatic brain injuries and different conditions that the veterans are exposed to. The reality is that none of that occurs. The government spends billions of dollars and much time training them to be violent and to kill, but there’s no money and no treatment for them to integrate back into their communities. When they come back they find it very difficult to adapt back to civilian life. We’ve got to remember that most of these veterans are entering the military at a very young age – 17, 18, 19 years old – very naive, very wholesome.

They were taken and they were reprogrammed to be an aggressive, violent, killing person. And you expect that when they come back without any type of readaptation period or treatment they can integrate back into the community and pick up where they left off as nice, wholesome kids – that’s impossible. This is reflected in the moment they find it difficult to integrate back into their civilian life; they resort to the classic forms of self-medicating: alcohol, drugs, and violence. Unfortunately, who’s at the other end of that violence? Their partners, their wives, their girlfriends, their parents, their kids. That’s why there has been a tremendous increase in intimate domestic violence within our military, and that of course leads to them being arrested and being taken to jail. If you are a US citizen veteran, you pay your fine, you do your time, and you go back to your community to live another day with your family.. As a veteran you pay three times – number one by doing your time, number two by having your legal residence taken away from you, and number three, the most drastic, you’re given a life sentence away from your family. You grew up in the United States, you didn’t grow up in Mexico or Central America or Africa, and now you’re being put back in that country that you were born in – but it’s not your home, it’s not your country. It’s a completely foreign land to you, and that makes it very difficult for that veteran to be productive, to be able to adapt. So as a non-citizen veteran you pay three times. Even the worst of criminals – murderers, rapists, are given an opportunity one time or another during their incarceration to have family visits, to see their kids and spouses. Deported veterans have no chance. You are deported, you can never go back to your home or to your country; that’s a great injustice. 


Photo, courtesy Robert Vivar, inside the Unified Deported Veterans Resource Center.


Latina Republic: Thank you for sharing this history. Tell me about the Honoring the Oath Act, HR5151, recently introduced into congress. Could it perhaps be a response to some of the problems you have raised?

Robert Vivar: Absolutely. There have been several pieces of legislation introduced to the house and the senate. Anything that is presented is good, but all of them fall short. HR5151 may not be perfect, but it’s the one that we feel offers the best opportunity to remedy this injustice. It’s not that complicated – congress and the president have made it complicated, and that’s what HR5151 touches on. When you take your oath of allegiance, you are swearing loyalty and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. US[…] code 1101alpha22 indicates that a person who has proven their loyalty and allegiance to the United States should be afforded the status of a national, if not a US citizen. We feel that this legislation, which is a clarification of this code, can be the remedy to resolve this injustice once and for all, so that when the veteran took the oath of enlistment he or she was considered a national if not a US citizen, and therefore placing them out of the reach of US Homeland Security. At the same time we want clarification that those that have been deported can be repatriated immediately. That’s why to us it’s very important to push this legislation, but also clarify these forms of legislation so they can be recognized as such, and once and for all correct this grave injustice. 

Latina Republic: Switching topics, how has COVID-19 affected your work, and how has it impacted deportees, migrants, and asylum seekers at the US-Mexican border?

Robert Vivar: The issue with asylum seekers here has been an ongoing grave issue since around 2016. Lately, President Trump revamping his racist rhetoric and politics against asylum seekers has created an even worse situation. We have thousands of people here in the border region of Mexico waiting for their asylum cases. There’s a lack of shelters, a lack of resources for them. They have been made to fend for themselves or at the mercy of civil organizations that have taken up the slack that neither government has been willing to attend to, to help our migrant crisis. Now, in the last three days we received notification that they are trying to implement even harsher policies regarding people seeking asylum. Every day, the Trump administration is coming up with new ways to deteriorate any flow of asylum seekers into the United States, regardless that they are trying to seek a legal process that has been recognized worldwide through the United Nations. This is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. 

Latina Republic: Is this immigration crisis what led to the inception of the organization ViaCafe that you are affiliated with? One of that project’s goals is to fund a micro-loans program that would provide support to shelters and businesses in Tijuana, could you tell me more about that project? 

Robert Vivar: The micro-loan program actually goes further than that. The way the project starts is by going into less fortunate communities, and gathering people from within the community through a course of what we call nutricology, which is a course of nutrition, ecology and agriculture to grow your own fruits and vegetables and promote better nutrition. The whole idea behind this concept is so that those persons within the community can get to know each other, build confidence in themselves, in their relationships, and at the same time determine their major needs. The reason for that is in hopes of creating a project to fulfill those needs, whether that is a small restaurant they need to operate, a small school – something that can be run by community leaders – and to support them with microloans at very low interest rates, so they can get those projects off the ground, or revamp a project already started. The whole idea is to make our communities more sustainable. Now we’re trying to see if we can make this model work with some of the shelters. We have one in particular – Movimiento Juventud 2000, which is a shelter close to the border. They’ve already started this project, they’ve got a small restaurant that makes pupusas. We think that businesses like that this should increase the size of their community, and perhaps with a micro-loan they would be able to revamp their restaurant operation, to increase their production and increase their sales, which is perfect because the proceeds go to helping the shelter. It’s about creating opportunities for the migrants themselves to be self-sustainable. 


Photo, courtesy Robert Vivar, children inside the shelter Embajadores de Jesus in Tijuana.


Latina Republic: Are these workshops you mentioned related to the “Charlamigos” program for ViaCafe that you are also the director of? 

Robert Vivar: The Charlamigos program is a little different. The Charlamigos program is designed to give opportunities to some of our migrants and deported people in the shelters, especially right now because of COVID you have an opportunity for earning a little bit of money. We’re very excited about the program. We have a lot of people that are willing to help and are very generous. On many occasions, not only do they want to help but they want to take it a little bit further, and it’s not only about helping but about helping to make them sustainable. Now they get for their money a one-on-one tutor to help them with their Spanish. And also the other good opportunity is the friendship side – that you get to know other people, other cultures. But very important – you get to learn first hand what is going on at the US border, and you get to learn it from those people that are being affected by these unjust policies. So overall, we feel that it’s a very good program that not only helps migrants but brings a wealth of information to the students that want to help support the project. 

Latina Republic: It sounds like a great opportunity for intercultural exchanges. 

Robert Vivar: Yes, that’s very important. We get a lot of visitors out here at the border through our veteran’s office and also at Friendship Park, and a lot of friendships are developed. This is an opportunity for you to continue the friendship that you started out here. It doesn’t mean that you went back home to North Carolina or Pennsylvania or wherever you came from and that friendship that you made is gone. This is an opportunity to continue that friendship and continue to be in touch and further know each other. 

Latina Republic: What led to the inception of Charlamigos and ViaCafe? 

Robert Vivar: It came about through Pastor John Fanestil who is the executive director of ViaInternational, and prior to being the director he was a pastor at the United Methodist Church in San Diego and is also the pastor of Borer Church. His involvement in Border Church and First Methodist Church made the contact with Lisa Sabertini, the president of ViaInternational, and somewhere along the line the conversation came up that ViaInternational has been working for over 30 years creating this kind of projects here in Mexico along the border – so why not extend it to the migrant community and deported community, taking into consideration that a lot of these people don’t have any documentation to work legally. This would bring opportunities for them to at least make a little bit of money, but at the same time some of these organizations that are already helping migrants would [give them an opportunity so that they could be deported so they could continue helping migrants]. And in specific what I am talking about is another small group that has been receiving microcredits from ViaInternational – a catering service that has been  helping out the migrant community here for awhile. And now they are being supported by ViaInternational to provide meals to one of the shelters here in town. So you’re helping an organization to help another organization. 

Latina Republic:  Final questions: What are the main things, from your perspective, that people in the United States don’t know or understand about deportees and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border?

Robert Vivar: The number one thing is the Immigration Reform Act of 1996 – we need to fix that. We need to fix 96 to allow for those family reunifications, to allow for our veterans to be reunited with their families. Something that is very important that nobody talks about: We hear a lot nowadays about the DACA kids, asylum seeking kids that are being placed in cages, and those are all very valid narratives that should not exist, that injustice should be eradicated. But nobody really talks about another injustice – that of US citizen children; kids that were born in the United States that are being denied the right to grow up with their parents, regardless that they’re US citizens – what about their rights? Their civil and human rights are being violated by not allowing them to grow up with their parents.

That is something that more people need to be talking about and more people need to be addressing it with our congress and our senate. 1996 is the start of it. Another thing that a lot of people are unaware of is that many of our veterans were deceived – they were deceived in that they were told by their recruiters that once they took the oath of enlistment they became US citizens. They were never instructed that they still had to go through a citizenship process of interviews and a lot of formalities – they were led to believe that the moment you raise your right hand and take the oath you become a US citizen period. Other veterans actually went through the process of citizenship, yet the process never was fulfilled because at one point or another they were on duty overseas when the final interview was supposed to take place in the US, and the upper command never followed through on those appointments to make sure that the veteran knew about the appointments and was afforded the opportunity to attend their interview. You can imagine, if you’re in Iraq and all of a sudden there’s a notification that you have an interview out here in California for your citizenship, how are you expected to drop your weapon, get on a plane and fly out to California? It’s impossible. 

Latina Republic: Would you like to share any personal stories about yourself or other individuals in the deportee community?

Robert Vivar: The story that stands out very strong with me is of a young man who was deported a couple of years ago – Marine Corps Sergeant Felipe Perez. Felipe grew up in the US – he came to the US at the age of two years old, grew up in a very abusive household, watching his mom be abused constantly, him and his brothers being abused constantly, beaten, locked in the house – just a horrible way to grow up, exposed to such tremendous violence. Yet he managed to grow up being a very soft-spoken and quiet person. When he became of age he enlisted in the marines because he thought that was the right thing to do, and he rose through the ranks and became a sergeant.

However at one point Felipe became very discouraged. He applied for US citizenship and while he was stationed in Japan his citizenship interview came about. And after that Felipe thought that because he was on duty he must have become a citizen. A little bit later on he came to find out, when he was trying to reach his dream of becoming an embassy guard, he was rejected for not being a US citizen. That really discouraged him – he had done everything within his means to prove his loyalty and allegiance to the United States – willing to give his life, going to war in Iraq, and still that piece of paper that says you’re a US citizen was holding him back from reaching one of his dreams to become a US embassy guard for the Marine Corps. That prompted him to not reenlist, so when his contract was up he left the Marine Corp. However now this once gentle person is coming back with a lot of violence engraved in him, and that violence was manifested in his struggle to integrate back into the community, and it was displayed with his spouse. This prompted him to be arrested for domestic violence and deported. 



You can support ViaCafe’s efforts by purchasing Mexican coffee beans, joining the Charlamigos program, or donating to a local business supporting a migrant shelter in Tijuana

This article from Vox provides an in-depth analysis of the effects of the 1996 immigration reform bill and the long-lasting impact it has had on immigration at the US-Mexico border. 

Dashiell Allen | Reed College
I am originally from New York City and am a senior majoring in Spanish at Reed College. I am currently writing my undergraduate thesis on the published works of the Frente de Liberación Homosexual de Argentina during the 1970s, and am interested in studying movements related to gender and sexuality in Latin America. I have previously been involved in local politics in New York City. I look forward to expanding my knowledge of Latin American politics through this opportunity!