PHOENIX (Border Report) — Alex Murillo helped start a flag football program years ago in the Baja beach town of Rosarito, becoming the head coach for the girls’ team and assistant for the boys.

The U.S. Navy veteran spent 11 years in Mexico after being in deported in 2011 for a marijuana-related conviction, forbidden from returning to the U.S., the only place he’d ever known.

Even though Murillo felt he was forced to live “in exile,” coaching helped him get by.

“I’m very proud of the boys and girls that are still playing American football in Rosarito,” he said, adding the he’d like to reconnect with his former players south of the border.

Murillo was allowed to return to his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, last August, but per the terms of his parole, he must remain in the U.S.

So as much as he would like to go back and visit, he is not allowed to set foot in Mexico.

“Now, I’m in the reverse situation, I can’t return to Mexico until I get my citizenship,”

Alex Murillo after enlisting in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy: Alex Murillo)

Murrillo said he experienced culture shock when he was forced to live in Mexico, a country with which he was not familiar.

“It was horrible at first, of course. There was anger, frustration, a lot of pain because of the family separation,” he said.

For Murillo, spending the Veterans Day holiday in Mexico was especially difficult, but he’d try to find a way to celebrate despite feeling abandoned and unappreciated.

“When you are in Mexico, in exile, it’s hard.”

“When you are in Mexico, in exile, it’s hard.”

Alex Murillo, Navy veteran

Murillo is one of hundreds of U.S. veterans deported to their countries of origin for committing crimes during or after their time in the U.S. military.

Murillo was brought to this country as a toddler and he’s always considered himself an American.

After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Murillo was a legal resident but not a U.S. citizen.

He served two tours of duty in the Iraq War as a jet mechanic.

Alex Murillo observing Veterans Day while in Mexico. (Courtesy: Alex Murillo)

“I never really knew Mexico until I was forcibly sent there,” said Murillo, who made ends meet working at a customer service call center for an American company.

He sought legal representation and always hoped he would be allowed to return and be with his family, especially his four children.

Murillo said his kids were growing up too fast and getting into trouble without him.

In August 2022, he was finally allowed to return to the United States.

“It was the most beautiful thing ever,” he said. “And I still remember them opening that door for me, and I looked up, and the sun was shining, but it was shining from the U.S. side on my face and I’ll never forget that. … It’s still like a dream to be home.”

Murillo is now receiving his Veteran Affairs benefits but says there’s something else he really needs.

“I’m involved in another battle to get a presidential pardon.”

According to Murillo, a presidential pardon will clear the way for him to get U.S. citizenship.

Being north of the border allows Murillo to help other deported veterans who are prohibited from the U.S., do the same.

Later this month, he will be in Washington, D.C., lobbying members of Congress to support a bill called the Veterans Service Recognition Act.

“It will allow soldiers on active duty to become naturalized citizens right out of boot camp and also would allow an active pathway for deported veterans to return home,” Murillo said.

According to the Department of Defense, about 30,000 non-citizen immigrants are active members of the military.

Since coming back to Phoenix and being reunited with his family, Murillo has been working full-time for a telecommunications company.

“Every day when I drive around and I see the American flag waving and I see the Arizona flag, I get chills and butterflies still because I missed it for so long,” he said. “It’s a dream to be home and I’m blessed to be home with my family.”