Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq facing deportation to El Salvador

Supporters of a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq are calling on the California governor to help stop his imminent deportation to El Salvador, a country he left at 3 years old.

Jose Segovia Benitez, 38, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999-2004 and was deployed to Iraq, receiving multiple awards and decorations during his service, according to Marine and military records. His rib cage is tattooed with large Statue of Liberty.

"He is a soldier who put his life on the line to defend his country," his mother, Martha Garcia, said in Spanish. "But when he returned from the war, he came back with problems."

His supporters said that when Segovia Benitez returned, he suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. He began self-medicating with alcohol and ran into trouble with the law, they said.

While he previously had legal status, he was ordered to be removed from the country last year after serving several years in prison for drug and domestic violence-related convictions, according to immigration authorities.

His family, advocates and lawyers say that while they do not excuse his past behavior, Segovia Benitez did not get the treatment he needed for his PTSD and brain injury, noting he served both his country and his sentence. They say he does not deserve to be deported to an extremely dangerous country he has never known after his years of service.

“It’s just cruel,” Garcia said.

Segovia Benitez, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 3 and grew up in Long Beach, California, decided to serve his country right out of high school, his mother said.

Basty Garcia, his sister, said her brother enlisted because "he was patriotic and believed in this country."

Immigration authorities began his deportation process Tuesday, but he was subsequently taken off a plane bound for El Salvador and is now being detained in Arizona, according to his family and advocates.

Basty Garcia said it remained unclear exactly what happened and why.

An advocate for Segovia Benitez appealed in August to California Gov. Gavin Newsom to pardon his convictions, Basty Garcia said. Attorneys for Segovia Benitez are now also seeking a pardon from Newsom.

Attorney Thomas Sanchez said Segovia Benitez was represented by a public defender in the drug and domestic violence cases and should have been charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies.

“So, when we looked at the case we said if we can get a pardon for him for the aggravated felonies, which should have been misdemeanors in the first place, then he can become a citizen,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said the assault with a deadly weapon charge stemmed from Segovia Benitez having a screwdriver in his pocket that he did not use.

Newsom's office did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Related: U.S. deports American Marine veteran’s wife to Mexico

Carlos Luna, president of Green Card Veterans, said Segovia Benitez’s case highlights what can happen when a veteran facing the criminal justice system lacks resources.

“If he would have had the resources to have legal representation back then, he would not be facing this right now," said Luna, who has been helping with Segovia Benitez's case, "Even further, if he would have had the medical resources available that he needed, then he may not have ever ended up in a courtroom.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement Friday that Segovia Benitez was ordered removed to El Salvador by an immigration judge in October 2018 and has “an extensive criminal history.”

His convictions include corporal injury to a spouse, for which he received an eight-year sentence, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, narcotics possession, conspiracy to commit a crime and driving under the influence, ICE said. He remains in ICE custody pending removal, the agency said.

ICE said Segovia Benitez was in custody "pending removal" but did not indicate where he was being held.

Segovia Benitez is also part of a lawsuit filed in August with 14 other ICE detainees, claiming they were subjected to "horrific" and "inhumane" conditions during their detention.

His sister said that during his time in detention, Segovia Benitez has helped other detainees and is "really loved."

"He's very helpful and obviously cares about people," she said.

Jeff Merrick, a retired master sergeant with the Air Force, said deporting veterans like Segovia Benitez after they served time was a “total disgrace.”

“They got into trouble, yes, they had issues, but they served their time, and instead of like other citizens, where they’re released back into the community, where they can have a life again, they're committed to a life term of exile,” said Merrick, who is a board member with the group Military Families Speak Out.

Segovia Benitez's mother said her son would not be able to get the treatment he needs in El Salvador and called Newsom to "please help us."

"This is the country he belongs in, the country he fought for," she said.