After living nearly 50 years in the United States, Mario Hernandez, 58, was shocked to find out that he is not a legal U.S. citizen, or even resident for that matter.
Hernandez successfully enlisted in the U.S. Army, voted, and passed routine background checks for his job as a high-level prison supervisor without any problems. He made it all the way to retirement, even. It was when he and his wife, Bonita, planned a trip to the Caribbean to celebrate his retirement after 22 years at the Bureau of Prisons – a trip which requires a passport – that Hernandez began to wonder if he had any naturalization papers at all.
The New York Times reports that Hernandez came to the country as a Cuban refugee in 1965 aboard a “Freedom Flight.” Under The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 he would have been eligible to become a permanent U.S. resident after one year and a citizen after five – if the paperwork had been filed.
Hernandez told Reuters he thought the U.S. military took care of his naturalization papers when he enlisted to serve in Vietnam in 1975.
“I thought I was a citizen — I’ve always been proud of being a citizen,” Hernandez told the Times.
His heartbreak didn’t end there. After completing an immigration interview in March his application for citizenship was denied.
Immigration lawyer Elizabeth Ricci has taken Hernandez’s case pro bono. Ricci told Reuters that Hernandez’s service to and honorable discharge from the Army during Vietnam was during a “designated period of hostility,” which under federal law makes him automatically eligible for naturalization.
Hernandez could also start the naturalization process over, as if he just came from Cuba and did not serve in the military, but has decided not to.
"I'm a veteran," Hernandez told Reuters. "I feel like I'm betrayed."
Ricci, who filed an appeal, fears there may be more bad news on the horizon. Ricci told Reuters that the second letter from immigration services stated that the case would be reopened but they required more information including a “sworn statement concerning when, where, how and why Hernandez claimed to be a U.S. citizen, including his voting records.”
Ricci fears they are preparing to press charges against Hernandez for falsely identifying himself as a citizen. Although as a Cuban refugee and veteran he does not face deportation, the charges could leave him paying fines or serving jail time.
“I think they are gravely embarrassed,” Ricci told the Times, “and are trying to shift the burden on him now to make him look like a criminal.”
Hernandez, whose job had him guarding high-profile criminals such as the Oklahoma City Bombers and infamous cocaine trafficker Willie Falcon, says this feels like a bad dream.
“This cannot be real, Hernandez told the Times, “I’ve been living here 49 years. This is the only country I’ve ever known.”