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The last battle: Decorated Marine veteran finally wins immigration case, but dies in car crash

The last battle: Decorated Marine veteran finally wins immigration case, but dies in car crash

George Ybarra fought PTSD, drug problems, COVID & criminal convictions — and finally prevailed in proving his U.S. citizenship

  • George Ybarra while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, and holding his first child, George Jr.
    Photo illustration by Paul Ingram/ Photos courtesy of the Ybarra family. George Ybarra while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, and holding his first child, George Jr.
  • The birth certificate of Ybarra's grandfather, Jose Jesus Lopez, who was born in Bisbee in 1917.
    The birth certificate of Ybarra's grandfather, Jose Jesus Lopez, who was born in Bisbee in 1917.
  • Luis Parra, Ybarra's attorney
    Luis Parra, Ybarra's attorney
  • Ybarra as a Marine
    Ybarra as a Marine
  • Esperanza Lopez, Ybarra's mother
    Esperanza Lopez, Ybarra's mother

For nearly three decades, George Ybarra — a decorated veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps — struggled to convince federal officials he was a U.S. citizen.

Just months after finally winning his case, proving that he was born a citizen, he died in a car crash in Phoenix.

Despite his service and clear documentation that Ybarra was a citizen of the country he fought for, U.S. officials repeatedly challenged his right to be in the country, deporting him once and attempting to do so again a decade later. Meanwhile, Ybarra's own experiences in the Persian Gulf war had marked him, and for the next decade he struggled with severe PTSD symptoms and drug use—culminating in an episode in which he hallucinated and fired a rifle at two Phoenix police officers and spent seven years in prison for assault.

En español: La última batalla: Muere el marine condecorado George Ybarra tras ganar su caso de inmigración

After his release from prison in 2017, immigration officials again sought to deport him. With his citizenship in doubt, Ybarra repeatedly lost access to veterans' services, and over the last decade "struggled to stay on his feet and have a place to live," said Luis Parra, a Nogales attorney.

He finally prevailed in his immigration case in June, with a judge ruling that he was indeed a citizen. Ybarra, 58, had lost his apartment and been recovering from COVID-19, and died last Wednesday in a rollover car crash.

Ybarra's case illustrates the complexity of immigration cases regarding derivative citizenship, which may affect up to 1.5 million people, most of them children, who may be eligible for citizenship through their parents. In 2017, the  Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern University published an analysis of federal data and found that the government had improperly detained more than 260 U.S. citizens in immigration cases.

While federal immigration Judge Richard Phelps ruled in 2011 that Ybarra had proved "by a preponderance of the evidence" that he was, in fact, a citizen and ordered the agency to release him, lawyers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement appealed the case. The ICE lawyers argued that Ybarra's grandfather, Jose Jesus Lopez, had not spent enough time in the U.S. to extend his citizenship rights to his daughter, Esperanza Lopez, who was born in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico in 1944.

To fight that appeal, Ybarra had to prove his grandfather spent more than five years in the U.S. before he moved to Mexico. With Parra's help, the family submitted sworn statements to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals.

In June, a three-judge panel ruled that Ybarra had "established by a preponderance of the evidence" he was a U.S. citizen, and tossed out his deportation order.

On Oct. 12, Ybarra was pronounced dead at the scene of a rear-end crash.

Sgt. Phil Krynsky, a Phoenix Police Department spokesman, said the incident was still under investigation. Around 5 p.m., police received a call of a crash at 27th Street and Baseline Road. Ybarra was driving west on Baseline when he "collided with the rear" of a vehicle stopped in traffic.

Winning his citizenship "meant so much to him," said daughter Zabrina Ybarra. "It meant so much to us too, we celebrated." To mark the judges' decision, they went to a Texas Roadhouse near her sister's home. "He was in really good spirits," Zabrina said.

With his citizenship no longer in doubt, her father thought he was closer to securing an apartment through the aid group U.S. Vets, she said.

"He was trying to get housing, and he was really close to getting an apartment and feeling normal," said Zabrina, adding that just before the accident, George said he was within a "week or two" of getting a place.

The last few years had been especially tough for George. He had been infected with COVID-19, she said, and "had been really sick" suffering from heart problems and blood clots, she said, adding he was "really slowing down."

"He was in an out of the hospital, and often in pain there, but he was trying to take care of himself," she said.

"COVID really messed him up," said Kurina Carrillo, the eldest of George's four children, including Jorge Ybarra and Krista Ybarra.

Even as his immigration case wound through the court and he continued to struggle with PTSD, George regularly visited his grandkids, who called him "Tata George," and took them for rides in his convertible Ford Mustang.

"He really tried to be normal with us, to take care of us, and give us advice," said Kurina.

She said that days before his accident, she spotted him on her front-door security camera, leaving Girl Scout cookies on the front porch for her daughter.

Convicted & deported

Ybarra served in the Persian Gulf War, working to clear mines and deliver explosives to the front line. He came under fire at least once from Iraqi tanks, and witnessed the notorious "highway of death," when U.S. forces decimated retreating Iraqi troops with airstrikes along a desert road. These experiences marked him and for the next two decades, he struggled with PTSD.

Beginning in 1992, after his return from the Middle East, Ybarra found himself in trouble with the law, and he was charged and convicted in a pair of cases for drug possession and sales. He was sentenced in 1995. Following his release from state prison in 1999, Ybarra was deported to Nogales, Son. — voluntarily.

ICE moved to deport him because of the felony convictions. He was held at the Florence detention center for nine months before Ybarra was finally persuaded to voluntarily deport himself, which  — needless to say — would later complicate his application for a certificate of citizenship.

"I can tell you that when George accepted the deportation, he felt like he had no choice," Parra told the TucsonSentinel in 2017. "He felt like he did not have an avenue of immigration relief for his pending deportation."

"Unfortunately, he was never fully informed of the immigration consequences," Parra continued, noting that it wasn't until 2010, in a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Padilla v. Kentucky, that criminal defendants had a right to know those implications. "There are people in George's shoes seeking to reopen their cases and set those aside on the basis of not fully understanding the immigration consequences."

Within days of his voluntary deportation, Ybarra had re-entered the U.S. after his mother mailed him his driver's license and military ID. Ybarra said he crossed back through the Nogales port of entry after a Border Patrol agent and fellow Marine Corps veteran waved him through. He then rode a Greyhound bus back to Phoenix.

He was picked up after just a few days, according to Parra, and charged with felony re-entry, though he later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

Now marked as a "criminal alien" and with one deportation already under his belt, Ybarra's mental health continued to decline.He also struggled to get treatment for his injured right hand, partially disabled during a training exercise during Desert Storm. Doctors did, at one point, surgically place pins in the hand. However, the VA refused to treat him on multiple occasions, Ybarra said. At one point, he was allegedly told that the VA does not treat "criminal aliens." made multiple attempts to review Ybarra's medical records after providing the VA with two privacy waivers signed by Ybarra, but officials never produced the requested records. The VA did not provide any comment for this report.

For a stretch of years in the 2000s, court records show that Ybarra's only legal troubles were a handful of traffic infractions, including driving on a suspended license and not having current vehicle registration. In 2009, he was convicted for possessing drug paraphernalia and sentenced to a year in prison, serving just a few months before being released.

As his mental health deteriorated and his substance abuse exacerbated, Ybarra was also dealing with ICE's efforts to deport him, according to Ybarra and his family. And, everything accelerated on Aug. 12, 2011, when Ybarra called a 911 dispatcher, claiming that someone driving a truck around the neighborhood was attempting to kidnap his son, George, Jr.

Ybarra told the Tucson Sentinel in an exclusive report in 2017 that the dispatcher refused to help him and was, instead, adversarial. He hung up on the dispatcher, changed into a set of BDU fatigues, and, remaining barefoot, kept his .22-caliber rifle close by.

When two uniformed Phoenix police officers arrived in response to Ybarra's 911 call, his mother went to the door to answer it, but Ybarra grabbed his rifle, moved his mother out of the way, and shot twice through a window in his front door. After the shots, Ybarra immediately dropped the weapon and cried out, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Within minutes several police units descended upon the scene, eventually negotiating his surrender. He served seven years in prison for shooting at the officers, and was released in 2017. Following his release, ICE officials sought to deport him again, and he spent months in immigration detention.

Parra: 'My comrade-in-arms'

While the two men served as Marines near Wadi al-Batin — a dry river jammed between the borders of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait — they hadn't met until 2010 when the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project referred the case to Parra because of his expertise in derivative citizenship. Parra argued Ybarra was a U.S. citizen, gaining his citizenship through his mother and grandfather, who was born in Bisbee, Ariz., in 1917.

"He was my comrade-in-arms," said Parra. The attorney worked on Ybarra's case for years, pushing to convince federal authorities that Ybarra was a U.S. citizen and to get his claims cleared with the Veterans Administration. 

"This was really difficult, because he kept getting tagged as not-qualified," Parra said. Without status, Ybarra couldn't get services, and he also missed out on disability payments. Along with his PTSD, Ybarra also suffered a hand injury during his service.

Parra said the back-and-forth over Ybarra's case was hard on his friend. While Phelps ruled in 2011 Ybarra was a citizen, ICE attorneys challenged the decision. In 2016, an immigration judge ruled against Ybarra, and in 2018 Phelps was asked to review the decision again.

Family testifies for George

In March 2018, the family dutifully went to the Eloy Detention Center near Eloy, Ariz. to present their case to Phelps. As the family entered the facility, a guard with Correction Corporation of America—which later became CoreCivic—began handing out surgical masks. A CCA guard had accidentally fired off a large canister of oleoresin capsicum spray, or pepper spray, spreading a noxious cloud throughout the visiting areas, and marking the walls and ceiling with orange spray.

Coughing slightly, Ybarra and his family sat in a small courtroom and waited for Phelps. However, after sniffing at the air and looking at courtroom of coughing, sneezing witnesses, he decided to continue the case until April.

Outside a senior CCA guard said of the accident, "I've never seen anything like this."

In April, family members successfully testified. However, Phelps argued that Ybarra's grandfather hadn't been in the U.S. for 10 years before the birth of his daughter. However, the BIA panel ruled Phelps was wrong, writing there was "nothing in the  record to contradict" that Ybarra's grandfather lived in the U.S. from 1934 and 1943. "This is sufficient to establish the grandfather resided in the United States for at least 5 years after age 14 and before [Ybarra's] mother was born."

"In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we conclude that upon full examination of all pertinent evidence, the respondent has presented sufficient evidence to sustain his burden of proof," the panel wrote.

"After the ruling in 2013, he got his benefits back, and then when the government appealed, and the judge ruled he wasn't a citizen in 2016, they stripped him from his VA benefits," said Parra. Following the recent decision, the VA recognized he was entitled to his benefits, however, "that was very hard on him. They kept on going back and forth with those benefits," Parra said. "At times, he had money to stay on his feet and have a place to live, and there were times when he didn't have money."

"For the last three years, he was just really having a difficult time, not only with his PTSD, but also finding a place to live," Parra said.

"He was our father, he was so tough and strong. I was so proud of him, telling people about his service in the Marines," said Zabrina. "He always wanted to protect us," she said.

Her father "loved cars," said Zabrina. Like her father, Zabrina owns a Ford Mustang, and he would regularly go with her to clean the car and the engine. "He was always telling me how to do stuff," she said laughing. "He really enjoyed his car," she said.

"He was resilient man, he had a good heart," said his daughter Kurina. "He loved his mom; he loved being with his family."

"He kept our relationship with us, no matter what. even when he was incarcerated, writing letters back and forth," she said. "We still shared that connection," she said.

Even after he was released, "he was trying to find what was lost," she said. "He was trying to earn back that time he was incarcerated—repair that with all of us," she said.

Parra said the family was seeking to establish a GoFundme to help cover funeral expenses, and would later hold a military funeral for the Marine veteran.

"The U.S. owes it to veterans to streamline this, and have a specialized programs related to veterans," said Parra. He noted that George had to fight with four agencies, including ICE, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, BIA, and the the VA.

"Cases like this that fall through the cracks, and veterans have to fight with four agencies," Parra said. "George had to deal this 28-year ordeal to assert he was citizen," Parra said.

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