The sound of a lone trumpet playing Taps slowly drowns the wailing.
It was a homecoming, of sorts.
Javier Ramirez, a Vietnam-era U.S. military veteran, was deported to his native Mexico almost 20 years ago. He was caught in the middle of a 1996 immigration law that permanently separated him from his family in Chicago.
He returned but in a casket.
On Tuesday, Javier Ramirez was laid to rest at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in southwest suburban Elwood. He was 70. A snow storm and the frigid winter temperatures couldn’t keep his family from celebrating his life.
As the trumpeter plays, Javier Ramirez’s family members hold onto one another. Two U.S. Marines take the American flag from his casket. They fold the flag tightly, and one of them hands it to Gloria Ramirez, Javier Ramirez’s widow.
“On behalf of the president of the United States,” the Marine told her.
Javier Ramirez’s daughter Claudia Ramirez stood next to her mom. She’d dreamed about her father’s return home since he was deported.
“Chicago was his home. For many years, I stayed quiet about his deportation. And it was when he got sick that I started making noise,” she said.
Javier Ramirez died of cancer in Mexico. Claudia Ramirez said she’s upset that her father didn’t have access to a Veterans Affairs hospital. He wasn’t allowed back into the U.S. to receive such care. He had to travel for six hours for his cancer treatments in Mexico. He commuted from a small town in San Luis Potosi, where he lived, to Monterrey, the closest big city. He used his military pension to pay for the treatments.
“His cancer was linked to the Vietnam era. He had multiple myeloma,” she said, adding that research has linked this type of cancer to chemicals veterans were exposed to during that time.
“I was really angry when he passed away in Mexico,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to do with this country anymore. I felt like they kinda backstabbed him or they murdered him with these laws.”
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 changed Javier Ramirez’s life. Under this law, his green card was revoked after a drug-related felony. His lawyer never told him the conviction would get him deported.
It was the late ‘90s and he didn’t fight the deportation. He thought it could take years to fight the case. He returned to Mexico. But, within days, he crossed the border illegally and came back to Chicago.
“I have to be with my son,” Claudia said her father told her at that time.
“My brother was in the hospital. He was near death,” she added. “So my dad wanted to be here.”
Javier Ramirez lived as an undocumented immigrant for years before he was caught and charged with a federal crime. Thanks to that same 1996 law, he spent two years in prison for illegal reentry — the most common case in federal court. In fact, a 2019 United States Sentencing Commission report found that those cases accounted for 34% of the total federal caseload — more than drug, robbery, child pornography and gun charges.
After those two years in federal prison, Javier Ramirez gave up.
“He stopped fighting after that,” Claudia Ramirez said. “He said, ya estoy cansado mija. I can’t do this no more. They are going to get me, and I’m too old. I’m going to jail.”
The family separated. And Javier Ramirez was forced to live alone in San Luis Potosi. But in 2019, the family had a glimmer of hope. By then, dozens of deported veterans were organizing to bring attention to their plight.
And in November, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth traveled to Tijuana to celebrate Veterans Day with a group of deported veterans.Javier Ramirez attended with his wife, Gloria, and daughter, Claudia.
Claudia Ramirez said her father became hopeful that President Joe Biden would allow deported veterans back into the country.
“What’s hard about bringing the veterans back?” she asks herself.
She said she’s going to continue fighting to change the laws that split her family.
As she grieves the loss of her father, Claudia Ramirez is also trying to heal from the punishing guilt of not being able to bring him back home alive.
“I really feel like I failed him. And everyone tells me, prieta, you did such a good job bringing your dad back. But I don’t think … I did. I feel like I failed him,” she said holding back tears. “There’s no coming back.”