© 2022 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Struggle of U.S. war veterans facing deportation is subject of new WKAR documentary

Valente and Manuel Valenzuela, two elderly Mexican-American men, pose in front of a black background in their military uniforms
Courtesy
/
The Valenzuela Brothers
Manuel (left) and Valente (right) Valenzuela volunteered and fought in the Vietnam War.

A new documentary premiering on PBS and WKAR calls attention to the stories of veterans facing deportation 50 years after fighting for the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

The film is called American Exile. It premieres Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 10 p.m. EST on WKAR-TV.

John Valadez is a Michigan State University professor and one of the filmmakers behind the documentary. WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with him about the film and the impact it has had.

Interview Highlights

On why he made this documentary

I guess that two things struck me. The first one is I couldn't believe my ears. I was like, "What is this? I've never heard of this. This sounds outrageous." The second thing that occurred to me was that this is not just about deportation. This says something about the times in which we live. This says something about the American soul and maybe some soul searching that we need to be doing.

On why these veterans feel betrayed by the country they fought for

For him to receive a notice of deportation and be kicked out of the country, as a disabled veteran, he's 100% disabled in large measure because of severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from his time in Vietnam. And so, to receive a notice of deportation after you've given up so much of your youth, so much of your life, I think is just absolutely devastating for Valente and other veterans who have taken an oath to defend, and if necessary, you know, to die for this country.

On how the documentary played a role in changing policy

I got a call from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), who had heard about Valente and Manuel, and I and Professor Carleen Hsu at Michigan State University who made the film with me, were invited to go give testimony at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill on deported veterans, which we did. And in fact, we showed clips from the film with senators and Congress people and their aides, there was not a dry eye in the house. It was so moving.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Today is Veteran’s Day. And as we remember and honor those who served our country, a new documentary premiering on PBS and WKAR calls attention to the stories of those facing deportation 50 years after fighting for the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

The film is called American Exile.

John Valadez is a Michigan State University professor and one of the filmmakers behind the documentary. He's here with me now. Thank you for joining me.

John Valadez: Thanks so much for having me.

Saliby: Why did you decide to pursue a documentary about this specific issue?

This says something about the American soul and maybe some soul searching that we need to be doing.

Valadez: Well, usually we don't really make documentaries about issues. We make them about people and about challenges that they face, and I guess that two things struck me. The first one is I couldn't believe my ears. I was like, "What is this? I've never heard of this. This sounds outrageous."

The second thing that occurred to me was that this is not just about deportation. This says something about the times in which we live. This says something about the American soul and maybe some soul searching that we need to be doing.

Saliby: You worked on this film for seven years. What is it like to carry these people's stories with you for so long?

I think for people who watch it, what they will get away from it is they will be really emotionally engaged and will be surprised at what they hear.

Valadez: Well, you know, one of the wonderful things about documentary film is that when you work in a long-time horizon, you can really see the changes that take place in people's lives. And thereby, you can have a very deep and penetrating experience and have a lot of nuance and understanding of a situation that you don't get when something, you know, when you just fly in and you do something very quickly.

So, this is a very thoughtful program, and I think for people who watch it, what they will get away from it is they will be really emotionally engaged and will be surprised at what they hear.

Saliby: I want to talk about one of those emotional moments in the film. One of your main subjects, a veteran of the Vietnam War, self-deports because he feels he has no other choice.

He's standing on the Mexican side of the border, and he throws his war medals into the river towards the American side. Here's a clip from that scene:

Valente Valenzuela: Over there is the United States. This is Mexico here, and for me to be carrying these medals, it doesn't seem right.

Saliby: Can you talk about this sense of betrayal that these veterans have had?

To receive a notice of deportation after you've given up so much of your youth, so much of your life, I think is just absolutely devastating for Valente and other veterans who have taken an oath to defend, and if necessary, you know, to die for this country.

Valadez: Well, for Valente Valenzuela, who's one of the characters in the film, you know, he fought in Vietnam. He was in the 82nd Airborne, and he's a combat veteran. So, he was shot in the stomach, he had his teeth knocked out because he ran into a Vietcong booby trap, and he was awarded the Bronze Star because he murdered, with his own hands, an enemy combatant who was about ready to kill three of his comrades. He literally is a war hero.

And so, for him to receive a notice of deportation and be kicked out of the country, as a disabled veteran, he's 100% disabled in large measure because of severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from his time in Vietnam.

And so, to receive a notice of deportation after you've given up so much of your youth, so much of your life, I think is just absolutely devastating for Valente and other veterans who have taken an oath to defend, and if necessary, you know, to die for this country.

So, that scene, for me, is very important. You know, to set it he's heading down to Mexico. He crosses the Rio Grande River, and for me, it's almost mythological. It's like crossing the River Styx. You know, he's dying, in a way because he's giving up his homeland.

And then to make things even more complicated or to make, you know, the stakes higher, he takes his medals, those things which mean the most to him, that symbolize the sacrifice and service that he gave to this country, and reluctantly, but necessarily, throws them back to the United States. Renders to Caesar that which is Caesar's, in order to cut the umbilical cord and in order to have agency over his own future and in order to be free.

Can you imagine that? You have to leave the land of the free in order to be free for the first time. I mean, it's just heart wrenching.

And you know, can you imagine that? You have to leave the land of the free in order to be free for the first time. I mean, it's just heart wrenching, and you can see it in Valente's demeanor.

And I think everybody who watches the film, I mean, it's a gut punch and you know, you feel it, it's something that should never happen, and yet for thousands of veterans, this has been happening in this country.

Saliby: There is a silver lining to this story. Earlier this year, the Biden administration halted veteran deportations and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to work to bring already deported veterans and their families back to the U.S.

Could you tell me how the film may have had an impact in that decision and announcement?

I gotta tell you, this is probably, you know, the proudest moment in my life.

Valadez: I gotta tell you, this is probably, you know, the proudest moment in my life. In the film of Valente and Manuel, these two brothers that set off on this quixotic quest to try to change national policy and bring deported veterans and their families back home. I mean, you know, just impossible, that never happens.

In fact, Manuel even rides in an RV to Washington, D.C. to confront President Trump and ask him to bring the deported veterans home. And of course, that doesn't happen, I mean, Trump doesn't do that. The President doesn't do that, but what ends up happening is other people begin to see this activism and hear the stories and begin to come on board.

And around this time, I got a call from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), who had heard about Valente and Manuel, and I and Professor Carleen Hsu at Michigan State University, who made the film with me, were invited to go give testimony at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill on deported veterans, which we did.

And in fact, we showed clips from the film with senators and Congress people and their aides, there was not a dry eye in the house. It was so moving. And after that, nothing happened.

The truth is that, we, at Michigan State University, professors and students, faculty, and in units across the campus helped change national policy.

But something did happen. There was another presidential cycle. A new commander-in-chief was installed in the White House, and President Biden who, had a son who was in the military and who the military is very, very close to his heart, you know, signed that executive order.

So the truth is that, we, at Michigan State University, professors and students, faculty, and in units across the campus helped change national policy.

This is not a fantasy. This is not something we're making up. It actually happened. And so the film in a sense is a kind of a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment. You know, the little guy takes on city hall, a David and Goliath story, because at the end of the day, for all its shortcomings, for however flawed democracy is, you know what? It can work.

You can arm yourself with the facts. You can do your research. You can tell your story, and you can change the world. We just did it.

It can really work, and you don't have to storm the Capitol with bats and bear spray and try to beat the hell out of people in order to get your way. You know what you can do? You can arm yourself with the facts. You can do your research. You can tell your story, and you can change the world. We just did it.

And if we did that, then we can work for more a just, equitable, peaceful future together. And that's what makes me really proud about this film.

Saliby: John Valadez is an MSU professor and one of the filmmakers behind "American Exile." Thank you for joining me.

Valadez: Thank you so much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
News from WKAR will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.