An interview with Mike Seely, the Director, Producer & Cinematographer of EXILED, a short film on two U.S. military veterans, both green card immigrants willing to die for the country that deported them. Seely speaks on contributing to the immigration policy debate and updates us on the status of Hector and Mauricio, the subjects of the documentary.
Tell us a little bit about your film.
EXILED is a documentary portrait of two deported U.S. military veterans living in Tijuana, Mexico. It’s an intimate portrait of these veterans and the huge challenges that they face as deportees. Because they are across the border in Tijuana, they live with little to no access to the medical benefits they are entitled to. They also deal with serious health issues like PTSD. One of the characters in the film, Mauricio, has pretty severe PTSD and even basic official designation of his PTSD is difficult down there in Mexico, let alone getting care for it. Other issues they face are separation from their families, and separation from the country they consider home. They both consider the U.S. home and a lot of these veterans do, even if they were born abroad. The film also touches on how they are struggling to get media attention, because it’s not very well-known even still — we started filming this 4 or 5 years ago — that veterans have been and are still being deported.
You technically can’t join the military if you’re undocumented, but if you have a green card, you can volunteer for the armed forces. What happens is, a lot of these veterans potentially go abroad and fight in wars, come back, but they don’t automatically become citizens. You still have to follow through with all the paperwork along with some other legal steps to get your citizenship. It’s not impossible, but some of these guys for whatever reason don’t complete the paperwork and, in the meantime, they may have a little scrape with the law. Most of the time, it’s nonviolent offenses, and then they can be deported. Their veteran status doesn’t keep them in the country.
How did you come to this project?
My wife was in Tijuana for another project when she met Hector, who’s in the film, and he gave her a pamphlet. He goes every Sunday to a place at the border called Friendship Park, which is right on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. She brought the pamphlet home to Berkeley where I live and said, “Hey, have you ever heard about this? I met this guy, he’s a deported veteran.” And there was a phone number, so I called him and we just struck up a friendship; a few phone calls later, after talking to my co-producer and editor, I decided that we should just go ahead and take a couple trips and try to make a film about it. There wasn’t really much media attention. There were a couple short videos online, but nothing that was very deep into it. I thought there was space for a story that dove a bit deeper into what it’s like to be these guys.
What can your film tell us about current immigration policy, especially in these complex political times?
The reason why I was interested in learning about deported veterans and making a story about them in the first place is that I think it’s a really interesting way into the immigration policy debate. Just to think about the concept that people will volunteer and risk their lives for a country and then that country can turn its back on them and deport them ... It’s a way to start to think about immigration policy from a new perspective for a lot of people who may see it in a black-and-white way. In the media, some people will see immigrants as just brown people that are ‘rapists and murderers flooding across the border,’ as our President might want to portray it. People might take a second look at immigration and ask why U.S. veterans are deported. I hope the film can open some doors into the conversation and bring some nuance to the immigration debate, because there’s so much bad information and fear in the discussion.
What do you hope your film will accomplish and how has it been used so far?
In an ideal world, the film will cause policy change and help change laws that allow veterans to be deported. But in a broader sense, I just really hope that it can spread awareness about this issue and also speak to certain communities that may not see immigration in this way. I wanted to open up doors in educational and community environments.
What are some specific problems that affect deported veterans with regards to healthcare?
In Mexico, finding a specialist in PTSD and, for Mauricio, to have any kind of access to funding or qualified personnel to treat or diagnose his PTSD is almost impossible. The film shows what he goes through, and I have so much respect for the guy for opening up to us and making himself so vulnerable in showing the personal struggles he has living with PTSD. He was in many combat missions and still lives with those demons. The biggest problem is just access. Whether they have PTSD or physical ailments as a result of their service, they can’t see doctors either because the doctors are too expensive and they can’t get their benefits or there just isn’t good enough medical service.
What are the benefits and downsides to creating a half hour documentary?
We were actually thinking about making a feature, but a lot of the decision was based on funding and we wanted to get the film out there. So we felt like we could make a really strong half-hour. We did have a third character, a veteran that was at risk of being deported living in Connecticut. But the story ultimately didn’t make the cut and it was hard to juggle between Tijuana and snowy Connecticut. The benefit of making a half-hour documentary is that it’s a really good way to go in-depth while not taking too long to do it and have something that would be great for community discussions and educational audiences. The downside for sure is that festival programmers have a hard time with it and so do broadcasters. It’s a tough length for them to include — we’ve had the film included in quite a few festivals, but it makes it harder to program.
Are you still in touch with Hector and Mauricio? If so, could you update us on how they’re doing?
I check in with them every month or two. Exciting news about Hector is that he is now a U.S. citizen. This happened in the spring of 2018. The year before that, Hector was pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown and because of that, and some other legal advocates, he eventually was able to argue to a judge that he should become a U.S. citizen. Since then, there have been one or two other deported veterans who have gained citizenship as well. It’s kind of a crack in the dam, but veterans are still being deported even now. The other great thing is that Hector is one of the most vocal and high-profile, formerly-deported veterans, so he became a kind of de facto spokesperson for the cause. He came from homelessness, started this deported veterans support house and raised awareness from zero to national attention. He really put the issue on the map, and he’s the one who got the ACLU involved. From that, it snowballed. Having him back in the U.S. is great for deported veterans everywhere because he can be back here doing his work. He continues to do the advocacy work and he splits his time between Compton — where his daughter and parents live — and Tijuana.
The last time I spoke to Mauricio, he was still living in Mexico, and he’s working occasionally. The one positive thing is that he was able to access some of his financial military benefits, which helps him avoid having to work too much in public. It’s tough for him because his PTSD is triggered very easily. He is still living kind of on the fringes of society, if you will, with his wife and his baby — his anchors there in Tijuana. He’s still in a precarious situation health-wise, but he’s hanging in there. He’s a survivor, and has been his whole life, but his life is definitely not easy.
What do you hope for students to take away from EXILED?
I want to get the audience members and students to consider deeply what it’s like to be a deported veteran and the kinds of issues they have to go through. If it inspires anyone to go down to Tijuana and do work there, I highly encourage that. And whether they’re working with deported veterans or any immigration-related issue, Tijuana is a fascinating place. This film is just a snapshot of the intense life dramas that are playing out. It’s relevant to everyone in the U.S., and that’s why it’s such a hot issue for so many people on the political spectrum. We’re basically talking about what it means to be an American, and what it means to be loyal and patriotic in a country, and what it means to be a good citizen. What does a country owe to those who put their lives on the line to defend that country?
I would encourage anyone who watches the film and is inspired by their stories to simply reach out directly to Hector and Mauricio, or any of their deported veteran brothers and sisters. Just knowing that people are seeing their stories keeps them going.