PHOENIX (AP) — A military veteran has returned to the United States after an immigration judge mistakenly deported him to Mexico in 2001 following his conviction on a nonviolent felony theft charge.
Joel Diaz Rincon, 51, who was a legal, permanent U.S. resident and had served three years in the Marines, crossed the border near San Diego as a free man on Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported.
“Shocking. I never thought I would make it back,” Diaz Rincon said, adding that he had lived in Arizona before his deportation.
His brother Jose Santana drove him from California to Mesa, Arizona, where they will live.
Once deported, Diaz Rincon lived in Nogales, Sonora, where he says he earned less than $100 a week working multiple jobs and had to live away from his then-6-year-old daughter and now-divorced wife.
The separation “was really hard and she didn’t want to continue the relationship. She actually thought I was never going to come back, to tell you the truth,” Diaz Rincon said.
His ex-wife later moved to Arkansas with their daughter, who is now 25 with three children, he said, adding that the last time he saw his daughter was in 2017 when she and his first grandchild came to visit him in Mexico.
Diaz Rincon snuck back into the U.S. months after he was deported but was sent back to Mexico in 2008 after being pulled over for a traffic violation in Phoenix, he said. He unsuccessfully attempted to cross the border two more times after that.
“I felt betrayed. Like I wasn’t good enough to live in the country that I thought of as my own and I was willing to die for,” Diaz Rincon said.
The felony theft charge stemmed from an incident at a rental car company where Diaz Rincon worked and had rented cars to acquaintances off the books to earn more money, said Talia Inlender, supervising senior staff attorney at Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in Los Angeles.
Years after he was deported, new case law clarified that theft offenses such as his could not provide a basis for permanently deporting a lawful permanent resident, Inlender said.
Diaz Rincon is the second deported veteran to return to the U.S. as part of the Public Counsel’s deported veteran program.
“It really raises the question how many others have been deported for erroneous reasons,” Inlender said, adding that the exact number is unknown but she believes is over 300.