SALT LAKE CITY — Losing a wallet can be a minor inconvenience for most, but for Daniel Torres, it created a "domino effect" that changed the course of his life.
It was 2010 and Torres, who had returned the year before from a three-year tour in Iraq, was preparing to go to Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment when his wallet went missing.
The loss of his state and military identification cards led to the discovery of a secret he had been hiding for years — he was serving in the military as an undocumented immigrant.
Now, instead of defending the country where he'd spent much of his youth, Torres would end up returning to one he hardly remembered.
What is it like to grow up undocumented?
Torres had grown up near the San Ysidro U.S.-Mexico border in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. in his early teens.
His story of learning what it meant to be undocumented is similar to those of other undocumented youth, who may not find out until they are in their college adviser’s office or are asked to provide their social security card on the first day of a job.
For Torres, he discovered the harsh reality of living in the U.S. without documents as soon as he graduated high school and started looking for jobs. He couldn't find work or apply for school loans, and instead turned to under-the-table jobs as a waiter or at construction sites.
"There was no other way to get anywhere in life," he said. "I didn't want to be working construction for eight bucks an hour."
It wasn't long before he started running out of job prospects and was faced with two decisions — go back to a country he no longer recognized, or lie about his citizenship, join the military and try to make something of his life.
He chose the latter.
"When the opportunity came to join the Marine Corps, I took it," he said. "The military was always attractive to me. But more importantly, it provided me with the kind of stability that I was lacking."
Enlisting in the military required a birth certificate, but that proved no hurdle for Torres. He produced a fake birth certificate after turning to Google, where he found a template that simply required him to type his name in.
He successfully enlisted, surprised the process had been so easy, but noted the government was desperate for soldiers to send to Iraq at the time.
After completing his training in San Diego, he served three years in the middle of the Iraq War, where he developed tinnitus, eventually losing 50% of his hearing. Still, he was ready to deploy again, this time to Afghanistan.
"They were asking for combat volunteers for Afghanistan, because they were losing a lot of people," he said. "So, I volunteered as a combat replacement."
While in San Diego preparing for his second deployment, Torres lost his wallet, which led to his superiors finding out about his legal status.
He was subjected to heavy questioning, and at one point was even suspected of being a spy.
“I was just a Mexican kid who wanted to join the Army," he explained before being honorably discharged from the military, where he had a good track record working as a military vehicle driver and as a bodyguard to high-ranking officials.
“If it has wheels, I can drive it,” he explained.
Unwilling to return to civilian life as an undocumented immigrant and faced with limited opportunity, at the age of 25, Torres left the U.S., and eventually returned to the city he hadn’t set foot in since he was 14 years old.
Recovering from war in an unfamiliar country
The transition from military life to civilian life is an uphill battle for any veteran returning home from war.
“It's insane,” he said. “It's difficult to make the transition to civilian life, but to make the transition in a place that has no resources for veterans” doubled down on the hardship, he said.
“Not being able to come and see my family for five years … not being able to do anything when my mother was diagnosed with cancer … not being able to do anything when I hear my buddies are committing suicide. It was depressing. It was a soul crusher.”
Lucia Torres, along with the rest of her family, took it hard when she realized her brother couldn't return to the U.S.
“It was definitely one of the scariest moments in my life just because I didn't know if I was going to be able to see my brother again,” she said.
The fear of having her brother not be able to return to the U.S. wasn’t just reserved for him, but for the rest of the members of her family who, at the time, lived in the U.S. without documents.
Lucia Torres said she couldn’t shake the thought — if someone like her brother could be barred from entering the country after risking his life as a soldier, what would happen to the rest of her family?
In order to protect the family from worrying about him, Lucia Torres said her brother had kept his method of getting into the military a secret from most of them.
“My brother … he's very much a protector,” she said. “He didn't tell us in order to protect us. So we wouldn’t have to live with worry.”
After leaving the U.S., Torres tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion in Paris, but was turned away because of the hearing loss he sustained during his time in Iraq.
He made his way to Tijuana where he was hired by a call center, work that he said “sucked the life” out of him. He soon realized he had to hit the books.
“I ended up applying for law school,” he said. “I never thought I was going to end up a lawyer. It was the last thing on my mind, but I got in.”
In 2012, he pursued a law degree at the Autonomous University of Baja California. At the time, he said, he thought he was the only veteran in his situation. Then he met Hector Barajas, who introduced him to the Deported Veterans Support House he ran in Tijuana.
Originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, Barajas, who founded the organization in 2013, said deportation of veterans is more common than people think.
Barajas and Torres said veterans, most of whom were legal residents before their residency was revoked, for years have been deported for breaking laws ranging from driving under the influence to homicide, crimes that might be connected to post-traumatic stress disorder or their harrowing combat experiences.
An Army veteran who served between 1995 and 2001, Barajas said he was deported twice — in 2004 and 2010.
Initially, Barajas went to prison from 2001 to 2003 for discharging a firearm from his vehicle. In 2004, he was detained by immigration enforcement and deported.
The same year, he entered the U.S. again and “stayed under the radar” until he was involved in a car accident in 2009. He was deported to Tijuana where he stayed until 2018. That April, after receiving a pardon from former California Governor Jerry Brown that “wiped his record clean," he was granted citizenship.
An undocumented veteran gets a chance at citizenship
It was at the support house where Torres said he met deported veterans from a variety of military branches who had been involved in “every single conflict you can think of,” like the Kosovo war, Gulf War and the Vietnam War.
Soon after, news broke of Barajas' support house and his efforts, and Torres' unique situation catapulted into the international spotlight, catching the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union where a lawyer took interest in his case in 2015.
The same year, he was hired to be an adviser for a film focusing on deported veterans. The film was successful and picked up by the Berlin Film Festival in 2016.
Two months later, immigration officials set a date to interview Torres as part of the naturalization process, nearly five years after he arrived to Tijuana. And just two hours after his interview, his citizenship application was approved and he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Upon hearing the news, Lucia Torres and her family cried for hours in disbelief. As soon has her brother arrived at the Salt Lake City airport, they were a family again.
Torres believes his immigration process was hurried along because immigration officials wanted to silence him and "make his story go away."
But Torres hasn't stayed quiet.
"Now, I can talk about it everywhere," he said, adding the he's used him platform to speak at political conventions and to lawmakers. His story, he believes, has "opened the door for other cases."
Meanwhile, Barajas continues to run the support house, which provides resources like legal counsel, housing and help with the military benefits, as well as a space for undocumented veterans to gather.
While he used to keep a handwritten list of deported veterans on a piece of paper, that has now evolved into an online registry that includes the name of 400 veterans who have been deported or are in deportation proceedings.
Torres said it’s difficult to determine the exact number of veterans who’ve faced deportation, as there’s no data collected by the government. Furthermore, he’s known of veterans from Ghana, South Korea, Haiti and Denmark who’ve faced deportation.
In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, released a report that recommended actions for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to better handle, identify and track cases involving veterans and to collect data regarding deported veterans.
The reported stated that ICE “has developed policies for handling cases of noncitizen veterans who may be subject to removal from the United States, but does not consistently adhere to those policies, and does not consistently identify and track such veterans.”
Additionally, the report stated that adhering to its policies “would help ICE better ensure that veterans receive appropriate levels of review before they are placed in removal proceedings.”
In February, Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, and Don Young, R-Alaska, sought to reintroduce the Repatriate Our Patriots Act, a bill that would create a "pathway to citizenship" for deported veterans who were honorably discharged or released and allow them to go through a naturalization process abroad. It would exclude those who have been convicted of violent felonies.
Torres doesn't believe it's enough.
"The right thing is to bring back everyone," he said.
Barajas said currently the only guaranteed way for deported veterans who were honorably discharged to make it back to the U.S. is if they die, and their bodies are returned for burial.
Torres, who recently moved from his Midvale home to San Diego, is looking forward to finishing his law degree at the California Western School of Law. He predicts he'll be done with the program and able to practice by 2022. His ultimate goal is to run for public office, where he plans to continue his advocacy for bringing back deported veterans.
“I want to continue my service to the country. And if I can't do it militarily, I'll do it politically,” Torres said.