For more than 10 years, Iraq War veteran Laura Meza has been banished from the U.S. and living in exile in Costa Rica. The former U.S. Army private was deported in 2009 for possession of cannabis and attempted robbery.
She says she committed those crimes while self-medicating with drugs after being raped in training and then sent to Iraq.
Now, for the first time in years, Meza has hope. Last month, the Biden administration announced a new initiative to bring back veterans who were "unjustly removed."
Details on who will be included have yet to be announced. But Meza is optimistic.
"I’m very blessed and happy," Meza said. "I feel like this is going to be a new beginning."
Born in Costa Rica, Meza was brought to the U.S. when she was only 5. Fifteen years later, she got her green card and joined the Army.
"I thought it would be a great way to give back to the country that gave me so many things," she said.
While training in Germany, she says she was raped by a fellow soldier. She didn't report the assault, fearing retaliation.
After a year of service, she was honorably discharged and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma.
“How can somebody like me be deported?" she asked. "Shouldn’t I be back there in a VA medical center getting help and the treatment that I need?"
ICE has been deporting veterans convicted of certain crimes for decades — though we don’t know how many because the agency has failed to keep tabs.
Advocates say the number ranges from the hundreds to possibly thousands.
In interviews, many exiled vets described how they were scooped up by U.S. immigration agents after serving time for drug-related convictions — essentially being punished twice for the same crime.
For all veterans in exile, deportation would have been entirely prevented had they become citizens during their military service. But misinformation and red tape often get in the way.
Jennifer Martinez of Repatriate Our Patriots urges the Biden White House to bring back as many vets as possible.
"It should include all of them no matter honorable service," Martinez said.