In This Heart-Wrenching Doc, We Learn Deported Vets Have Become Vulnerable Prey for Mexican Cartels

Lead Photo: Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF
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Going in you know that Ready for War is going to be a tough watch. The Showtime documentary, which was executive produced by Drake, Future and David Ayer, among others, is all about the plight of deported veterans. Director Andrew Rezi follows a handful of immigrants who enlisted to serve the country they’ve always called home in hopes of having their naturalization process fast-tracked only to find it being stalled, leaving them vulnerable to deportation after non-violent offenses cost them the very freedoms in the country they’d fought for. Equally heart-stirring and terrifying, Renzi’s doc is a call to action and a reminder that immigration reform is a far-reaching issue that cuts across issues of mental health, drug addiction, and veteran affairs.

While this real-life action thriller of a documentary needs to be seen in full, here are five takeaways that should be enough to make anyone want to fight for the vets it portrays.

Ready for War screened as part of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Deported Veterans Show the Limits of the American Dream

If there’s one thing Hector Barajas and Miguel Perez stress above all else during their interviews in Ready for War is that they love the United States. That’s why they enlisted in the first place and no matter how much that same country’s laws and courts are currently failing them, they stand by their admiration of the U.S. The two veterans (one living in Tijuana after being deported years earlier, the other facing deportation while in a detention center) are proof of the way the very systems they went to fight for are failing them now. Having known no other life than the one they made for themselves in the United States, the prospect of deportation (and of potentially never seeing their families ever again) is particularly cruel: what advocates like Senator Tammy Duckworth and Supervisor of San Diego County Nathan Fletcher stress is that these vets need help here and that citizenship for them is a right, not a privilege to be dangled in front of them and then discarded.

Our Immigration System Currently Fails Our Veterans

While the headlines may make this sound like a recent problem (or one tied solely to the increased power government agencies like ICE have today), Renzi’s doc makes it clear that this specific problem dates back to at least 1996. That’s when Bill Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. One of the many consequences of that bill was the swift way in which veterans who were on a path to citizenship suddenly saw their lives upended if they’d been convicted for any aggravated felony: for veterans who came back from war and struggled with addiction, for example, that meant that a non-violent drug offense immediately triggered deportation and removal proceedings and nixed their possibility of becoming a citizen.

Advocates Are Pushing for Compassion

“I made bad decisions but I still consider myself an American.” So says Hector as he talks about how his plight to get his citizenship is and should be a separate issue from his own criminal record. In many of these cases small non-violent drug-related offenses have been used to derail paths to citizenship. This despite people like Miguel having already served their sentences. Throughout, the ask is not to give these veterans immunity or to inure them from being held accountable for their actions. On the contrary, it is a push to realize that they have served their time and that, as Americans, they deserve to return to their lives once their debt to society has been paid, not thrown out the door soon after. 

Veterans, When Deported, Are Denied the Benefits They’re Entitled to

Beyond merely framing this as an immigration issue, Renzi’s doc stresses how these deportations strip veterans of the benefits they’re entitled to. Losing their green card and their path to citizenship is appalling enough as it is, but these vets are also losing access to resources they need in order to survive. Hector and Miguel talk candidly about their PTSD, with the latter specifically noting how if and when he’s deported, he’ll lose access to the treatment and medication he relies on. In a bitter ironic twist, the one benefit they can still cash in while abroad is their military burial in U.S. soil: meaning that for many, the only way they’ll be able to cross the border again is if and when they die.

Deported Vets Have Become Vulnerable Prey for Mexican Cartels

While Hector and Miguel’s stories are frustrating examples of how a system has failed vets, their resilience paints a picture of veterans who believe the United States should and will do good by them, even if that means fighting in court for years on end. But it is the story of ‘El Vet’ which lends Ready for War a more terrifying premise: “It was like a horror movie,” the masked veteran-turned-cartel hitman tells the camera about his deportation. When the cartel threatened his life and his family, El Vet had no choice but to lend his military expertise to some of the most dangerous groups in Mexico. And to gather from interviews with inmates in Mexican prisons, as well as Mike Vigil, former Chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, his is not an isolated one. Moreover, Renzi gets to follow him on several cartel missions (yes it gets gruesome, yes it’s horrifying). If you don’t want to support these vets on moral grounds, the film suggests, you should do so to avoid providing a steady stream of trained men to the kind of groups this country’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is directed at.