(WXYZ) — An eye-opening documentary is debuting with a special screening on Veterans Day, and it raises awareness about the issue of veteran deportations in the United States.
Thousands of people who served in the military have been forced to leave the U.S. after putting their lives on the line.
The practice became more common after 1996, but this year, the documentary "American Exile," made by Michigan State University filmmakers and students, has led to real change.
After nine years in the making, "American Exile" is a documentary meant to open peoples' eyes to the issue of veteran deportation. The two filmmakers behind the project say it's also making history at MSU.
“Some nights you just can’t sleep, just thinking about immigration officials coming over and picking me up and deporting me, and no one would know," Manuel said in the documentary. “Today there are thousands of veterans who have been deported. It’s a national disgrace."
Many Americans are unaware of the deportations.
The film focuses on the journey of two brothers: Manuel and Valente Valenzuela, who fought bravely in Vietnam only to face deportation decades later.
“I didn’t know about this until I got a removal notice. If I would’ve known that since 1996 they’ve been deporting veterans? We didn’t know that," Manuel said. "In 2009, I got my removal notice and my whole world went down man. It crashed.”
Speaking with us through Zoom, Manuel opened up about the project MSU Professor John Valadez directed and Professor Carleen Hsu produced and edited, with students from the school's documentary film program.
“This movie John made is very powerful, it gets you right there in your heart. I’m very proud to say I took part in this because it is true," Manuel said.
"American Exile" premieres nationwide on Nov. 16 at 10 p.m. on PBS. It retraces the paths of several victims who are among the more than 4,000 ordered to leave the U.S. for committing misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting and marijuana possession.
“When they first started telling me what was happening to them, I had a hard time believing it honestly. That the United States would deport U.S. military veterans who saw combat, who came back wounded and broken," Valadez said.
“I think we were all deeply affected and moved by it," Hsu added. "I really hope 'American Exile' makes people think about what it means to be an American. Is it a piece of paper that says I’m a citizen or your duty? The fact you serve our country.”
Throughout the course of the film, viewers experience the pain felt by the Valenzuela brothers, who recall the horrors of war which left both with lasting PTSD.
“We could hear explosions and see fires, the moment we landed we were told run for cover. Right away you know death is near," (PERSON HERE) said in the film.
There was also the fear of being separated from children and even grandchildren.
The documentary sheds light on the fact that roughly 65,000 non-citizens serve in the military at any given time, and one in three Americans have committed similar misdemeanors to those that have led to deportations.
“Thousands have stopped me and said, 'is this for real? I never heard this,'" Manuel said.
A 1996 policy passed during the Clinton administration led to roundups, which resulted in thousands of veterans losing their benefits and life-saving medical treatment through VA hospitals.
“For someone who’s gone and suffered battle wounds or emotional scars, to lose their VA benefits, how damaging is that?" I asked
“It’s everything," Hsu responded. “One of them actually died in the process of making this film, because he didn’t have the health care he deserved.”
This story is not without hope. Manuel's crusade across American in his custom camper has inspired real change.
On July 2, President Joe Biden halted unjust veteran deportations and allowed deported vets and their families to return home, affording thousands the resources & support they once lost.
“We owe them everything because they allow us to live our lives and be comfortable," Hsu said.
The film is expected to reach a primetime audience of seven million people on PBS. "American Exile" is already making history, both for the emotional tale of two brothers now living in separate countries and for the strength, spirit and patriotism they've shown us.
“When Valente is telling you he still loves the U.S. and the flag, what’s going thru your mind?" I asked.
"He gets it. He gets it in a way so many Americans don’t get it," Hsu responded.
The calling to leave no one behind continues driving Manuel to bring back remaining veterans who were deported to Mexico and other Latin American countries as their loved ones wait.
“It destroys individuals, families, it destroys communities. Think about it, all the people I met who were deported are people of color," Valadez said. “Foreign nationals in the United States military have always been an essential component of our defense.”
A free, virtual screening is being presented both online and in-person on Veterans Day at 7 p.m. through WKAR at Michigan sate University.
"We helped change national policy," Valadez said.
“I have been fighting this since 2009 and have been to five funerals, mind you, of a deported veteran," Manuel added.
The filmmakers say this also couldn’t have been possible without the hard work of students who traveled all around the country, and to Mexico to make the film a reality.