SAN DIEGO (AP) — A former Marine who was deported to Mexico 15 years ago for his conviction on a minor offense returned to the United States on Thursday after winning his battle to regain permanent U.S. residency.
Marco Chavez said he felt speechless when he walked into the United States.
"I was in disbelief," he told reporters gathered outside a McDonald's several feet from the border crossing. "I believe it now that I am over here."
He said it will be an unforgettable Christmas because he will spend it with his family.
"I'll be able to wake up Christmas morning, hug them and let them know I'm home," he said.
His father, Antonio Chavez, stood by his side and told reporters in Spanish that he was grateful to have his son home.
The return gives hope to hundreds of other deported U.S. military veterans, said Nathan Fletcher, a Marine combat veteran whose organization lobbied on Chavez's behalf.
"For those of us who have served and fought for this country, we can't rest until they all come home," he said.
An immigration judge's ruling last month allowed Chavez to come back.
Chavez said he got a break in his case when the American Civil Liberties Union found him a lawyer, which led to California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoning Chavez for a 1998 conviction of animal cruelty for a dog beating. Chavez said another person was responsible.
Brown, a Democrat, said Chavez "served our country, earned a pardon and deserves to come back home."
Chavez was a baby when his parents brought him to the United States. He served four years in the Marine Corps and was honorably discharged. He served 15 months in state prison for his conviction and then got deported in 2002, having to learn Spanish and find work in a country that was foreign to him.
Chavez said his wife found life too difficult in Tijuana, a violence-plagued Mexican border city where schools are lacking and jobs are scarce. She eventually moved back to the United States, settling with his sons in Iowa after they divorced.
Chavez is now 45 and his sons range in age from 17 to 21. They last visited him in Tijuana in 2013.
His parents, who live in Los Angeles, would visit regularly. Chavez plans to live with them while he waits for his residency card to be replaced. He then will move to Iowa and try to rebuild a relationship with his children.
He also hopes to someday become a U.S. citizen.