SAN DIEGO — Former Marine Marco Chavez could not sleep the night before he was set to cross the border and return to the United States, a country he considers home after he was deported to Mexico 15 years ago following a dog beating conviction.
When Chavez finally walked into the United States through the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing on Thursday, he was speechless and still in disbelief that he had won his battle to regain his permanent U.S. residency.
It was an historic day for the Mexican-born father of three who returned to the U.S. as a grandfather. He is considered among the few former service members to regain permanent residency out of hundreds of veterans who have been deported.
"I was very nervous, very excited and it was still, I can't believe it until now," Chavez said standing outside a McDonald's, just inside the California side of the border.
He was met by hugs and screams of "Welcome!" and "Bienvenidos!" by a group of veterans and immigrant rights advocates waving U.S. flags.
Chavez said it will be an unforgettable Christmas because he will spend it with his family.
"I'll be able to wake up Christmas morning, and hug them and let them know I'm home," Chavez said, his father standing by his side.
His father, Antonio Chavez, told reporters in English and Spanish that he was grateful to have his son finally home.
"I'm very thankful and happy," Antonio Chavez said, his voice quivering as Marco Chavez hugged him.
The return gives hope to the other deported U.S. military veterans, said Nathan Fletcher, a Marine combat veteran whose organization lobbied on Chavez's behalf.
"For those of us who have served and fought for this country, we can't rest until they all come home," said Fletcher, among the first to welcome Marco Chavez back with a big hug.
Fletcher, a former California state lawmaker, founded the Honorably Discharged/Dishonorably Deported Coalition that tries to help deported veterans get back to the U.S.
"We are here today because a group of people said if you are willing to die for a country, that country would not leave you behind, that country would not let you be deported," he said.
Earlier this year at the request of Fletcher's organization, California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Chavez for a 1998 conviction for animal cruelty in a dog beating. Chavez said another person was responsible.
Months after he was pardoned, an immigration judge granted Chavez's request to return.
Brown, a Democrat, said Chavez served the U.S. and deserved "to come back home."
Brown also pardoned two others veterans deported to Mexico who are waiting to win their legal battles to return.
Chavez was a baby when his parents brought him to the United States. He joined the Marine Corps at age 19, served four years during peacetime and received an honorable discharge.
He had been sentenced to two years in a state prison for his conviction and was released early because of good behavior. A federal judge, however, used the conviction to deport him in 2002.
Chavez, who whose three sons were young at the time, stayed in Tijuana. He said he had to learn Spanish and find work in a country that was foreign to him.
His wife moved the family to be with him but found life too difficult in the violence-plagued Mexican border city where schools are lacking and jobs are scarce. She eventually moved back to the United States, settling with his sons in Iowa after they divorced.
Chavez is now 45 and his sons range from 17 to 21. They last visited him in Tijuana in 2013.
His parents, who live in Los Angeles, would visit regularly. Chavez plans to live with them while he waits for his residency card to be replaced. He then will move to Iowa and try to rebuild a relationship with his children.
Among the few items he returned to the U.S. with was a red "Radio Flyer" wagon that he had carted his sons in when they lived in Tijuana with him.
He kept the wagon in storage for 15 years and is looking forward to showing it again to his sons and now his two grandchildren.
This version corrects that Marco Chavez has two grandchildren, not three.