SAN DIEGO — A Marine veteran deported to Mexico 15 years ago after he was convicted of a minor offense has won his fight to return to the United States and regain his permanent U.S. residency.

Marco Chavez told The Associated Press on Monday that he was looking forward to reuniting with his three sons in Iowa after missing their childhoods. He is now 45 and they range in age from 17 to 21.

“One of the things I wanted to let my kids know is they did have a father and I did not plan to leave them,” said Chavez, who has been living in the border city of Tijuana. “That wasn’t part of the plan with me and my ex-wife. I just want to be there to support them. They still might have resentment but that’s understandable.”

An immigration judge’s ruling last month is allowing Chavez’ return. It came after California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, pardoned Chavez. He was convicted in 1998 of animal cruelty for a dog beating but said another person was responsible. He was sentenced to two years in state prison, was released after 15 months because of good behavior and later deported.

Brown said Chavez “served our country, earned a pardon and deserves to come back home.”

His wife initially moved to Tijuana with their sons so they could all be together, but life was too hard for the family in the violence-plagued border city, where the schools were not as good and jobs were scarce, Chavez said.

The couple divorced and she moved to Iowa with their children. He plans to meet his parents at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in San Diego before Christmas and will live in Los Angeles with them for several months while he deals with his residency paperwork. He then will move to Iowa and try to rebuild a relationship with his children. Chavez last saw his sons when they visited him in Tijuana in 2013.

Chavez was a baby when his parents took him to the United States. He served four years in the Marine Corps and was honorably discharged. After getting deported in 2002, he had to learn Spanish and find work in land that was foreign to him.

“Life is possible in Mexico, but it’s not comfortable,” said Chavez, who found work as a security guard and later used his English working for a call center in Tijuana for U.S. companies.

“Now I understand why everybody tries to cross by any means possible,” he said.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jennie Pasquarella said the case gives hope to other deported veterans, including two other veterans also pardoned by Brown and are in Mexico and have lawyers trying to win permission for them to return to the United States.

The Tijuana-based Deported Veterans Support House says it has documented at least 301 cases of veterans being deported to some 30 countries. More than 60 of them are Mexican.

Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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