John Valadez had become an expert on subjects of bias, law and Mexican-Americans.
Still, this was new to him: Two brothers (shown here), both U.S. war veterans, said they were fighting deportation.
“I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him,” Valadez recalled. “It seemed really weird.”
But it turned out to be true. The result – almost a decade later – is “American Exile,” at 10 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 16), on PBS, under the “Voces” banner.
Valadez had already directed several films for CNN and PBS. He’d won an International Documentary Association award (for “CNN Presents” films) and had been nominated for an Emmy, for his film about the 1945 controversy that spurred the Mexican-American civil rights movement.
He was showing the latter in Colorado, when the brothers met him afterward. Valente Valenzuela (shown here, right) had been in the Army; his brother Manuel (second from rightwas a Marine. Both had fought in Vietnam. “Valente won a Bronze Star,” Valadez said. “He was completely heroic.” And both had received deportation papers.
Valadez phoned his filmmaking colleague, Carleen Hsu. “I totally didn’t believe it,” Hsu recalls. “I remember saying, ‘Go check everything.’”
That would take a while, with other projects to work on. Now both are Michigan State University professors, where he heads the documentary lab. “Students are clamoring to do this,” he said. “They want to change the game.”
For “Exile,” he had to start with those surprising details:
Yes, he found, there have been plenty of non-citizens in the U.S. military – as many as 65,000 at a time. But “for most of American history, there had never been a vet deported.”
Then Bill Clinton signed a 1996 bill, sharply altering immigration policy. Since then, Valadez said, about 4,000 vets have been deported … and many more have received deportation notices.
For the Valenzuela brothers, their mother was American, their father was a naturalized citizen, but they were born on the Mexican side and the U.S. said she hadn’t filled out the proper papers.
“The U.S. says I’m an alien,” Manuel says in the film. “The State of Colorado says I’m a citizen.”
After Vietnam, both brothers had misdemeanor convictions for the sort of things – assault, battery, resisting arrest – that we now associated with PTSD. “What do you expect from a Marine – to be an angel?” Manuel asks in the film.
Decades later, that triggered the deportation notices. This was a new story, but it reflected themes familiar to Valadez (who grew up in Seattle, descended from migrant workers) and Hsu (who grew up in New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants). “There’s been a history of exclusion,” she said.
Unlike previous films, this was one they had to simply follow along. “This is not a historical film where you know what happens,” Valadez said.
He followed Manuel, now 70, on a 1,600-mile trip to Washington, D.C., meeting other vets along the way. He also met family members who have been affected – an American-born woman whose husband (partially paralyzed and almost blind) faces deportation to Pakistan; a man, now facing deportation, spiraled downhill after his daughter’s death and faced deportation.
“She was a bonafide war hero,” Valadez said. “She died trying to save someone else.”
And the film found Valente, now 73, ar his lowest point, throwing his medals into the Rio Grande. “It’s not up to us to intervene,” Hsu said. “You have to let it unfold.”
In this case, there are even hints of a happy ending. In July, the Biden administration decided to reconsider all vet deportations, past and present.
By then, Valente had moved to Mexico (“self-exile,” he called it) and had written a book that was well-received in his new hometown. He also began a romance with a woman who helped with the book.
“It’s bittersweet,” Hsu said, because he left the nation he’d fought for. “But he’s found some solutions.”