Mario Hernández, a Cuban who for decades believed he was a U.S. citizen, finally swore allegiance to the United States last week and won the right to call himself an American.
Hernández’s naturalization came during a special ceremony inside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Jacksonville where he showed up with his immigration attorney, Elizabeth Ricci, for a previously-scheduled appointment.
“I feel like I was born again,” said Hernández in a telephone interview with el Nuevo Herald after the seven-minute citizenship ceremony.
The ceremony in which Hernández became a U.S. citizen closed a harrowing chapter in his life, one marked by an initial veiled threat of possible arrest if it was shown he willfully passed himself as a citizen and registered to vote. In the end, however, immigration authorities backed off from their original hard-line attitude and on May 21 agreed to confer citizenship on Hernández, 58.
The case drew national media attention after el Nuevo Herald published the first story March 24.
Hernández and Ricci struggled for the naturalization decision until the last minute. Ricci said that even after immigration authorities agreed that Hernández should be naturalized, they were still reluctant to give him citizenship right away.
“They said they did not have jurisdiction and that he had to be naturalized in a courtroom in Tallahassee where he lives,” said Ricci.
She rejected that course of action and insisted that Hernández could be naturalized right away in the Jacksonville USCIS office. Personnel there contacted a federal judge in Pensacola and received authorization to proceed with the ceremony immediately.
“It was a day of happiness and then sadness and then sadness again, but in the end it was a wonderful day,” said Hernández after the citizenship ceremony.
Hernández arrived with his family in Miami in 1965 when he was nine years old, The family landed aboard one of the so-called freedom flights whose refugee passengers were processed by immigration authorities at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.
Most Cuban migrants are admitted into the United States with a parole document, which they exchange for green cards after more than a year in the country. Five years later, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen, they can apply for citizenship.
But a few Cubans, Hernández included, for some reason or another fail to apply for permanent residence and continue living and working in the United States with their parole document. It’s not illegal, but such a status is awkward since most government and private business offices expect a foreign national or naturalized citizen to present a green card or a U.S. passport or naturalization document to prove legal status.
Hernández said he grew up in the United States believing he was a citizen. He joined the armed forces and obtained employment in federal and state agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). He also registered to vote and apparently voted in some elections, again thinking he was a citizen, according to Ricci, his immigration attorney.
“I have directed him to gather the voter info, remove himself from the roll and obtain his BOP application,” said Ricci a few weeks ago when she feared her client could be charged with falsely claiming to be a citizen.
Ricci also said that days before the immigration service appointment, she warned Hernández about two possible outcomes: obtaining citizenship or being placed in detention and put in deportation proceedings.
Hernández learned he was not a citizen last year when he could not obtain a passport to travel with his wife on a foreign cruise to mark their 30th wedding anniversary.
After he contacted Ricci, Hernández asked immigration authoririties for citizenship on the grounds that he served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Under immigration law, foreign nationals who have served in the armed forces during officially designated periods of hostilities can be naturalized as citizens. One of the designated periods is the Vietnam War from Feb. 28, 1961 to Oct, 15, 1978. Hernández enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1975 and received an honorable discharge in June 1978.
Despite the law, the immigration service denied Hernández’s citizenship petition and offered him a green card instead.
Ricci appealed the decision citing the hostilities clause. After el Nuevo Herald queried the immigration service about Hernández’s appeal, Ricci received queries from the agency asking if her client had registered to vote or claimed to be a citizen.
USCIS acknowledged an error in handling Hernández’s case.
“USCIS made a mistake in the adjudication of Mr. Hernandez’s application for citizenship, and apologizes to him for any hardship this caused him and his family,” USCIS said in a statement. “Simply put, we decided his application under the wrong section of law – handling it as a regular naturalization case rather than a military one. As soon as this error was brought to our attention, we immediately reopened the case, and this morning after a thorough review of the case with Mr. Hernandez, we were able to approve his naturalization application.”