Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Mario Hernandez, an Army Veteran Who Has Lived in the U.S. for 50 Years and Learned He Was Not a Citizen, Finally Naturalized; 'This Is the Only Country I've Known'

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Mario Hernandez, an Army Veteran Who Has Lived in the U.S. for 50 Years and Learned He Was Not a Citizen, Finally Naturalized; 'This Is the Only Country I've Known'

Article excerpt

Byline: Dana Treen

After decades of slipping through the cracks, Mario Hernandez, who came to the United States when he was 9, served in the U.S. Army and had a career working in the federal prison system, finally received something he thought he already had.

American citizenship.

Hernandez, who lives in Tallahassee, was at the U.S. immigration office in Jacksonville on Wednesday to reverse denials he'd been served during an earlier attempt at getting his citizenship.

"The last time I walked in here, I was treated like dirt," he said while waiting for his case to be called.

By 1:30 p.m. his oath of citizenship had been administered in a cobbled-together ceremony at the Southside office.

"I couldn't be happier," he said.

His first act, he said, will be to get his voter registration card in Tallahassee.

"This is the only country I've known and I am very proud," he said.

A 9-year-old in 1965 when he came here from Cuba with his mother and three sisters, Hernandez was allowed to stay under the Cuban Adjustment Act. He was eligible for a green card a year later and citizenship five years after that, but no one in his family ever applied for those documents.

He was given a Social Security card in California when an employer helped him apply for one, he said.

When he joined the Army, he took what he believed was an oath of citizenship. After a three-year stint, he went on to work and never left the country. He has paid taxes throughout his life and has no criminal record, his attorney said.

It wasn't until after he retired and decided to go on a cruise with his wife, Bonita, that he learned he needed a passport.

He had no paperwork proving his citizenship. The application was denied.

It should have been granted.

When he joined the Army in 1975, the Vietnam War was still in what was considered a "designated period of hostility." That factor qualified Hernandez for citizenship, but the immigration service denied his application in March. His attorney appealed and two continuances followed.

"I think it shows the immigration system is very broken," said Elizabeth Ricci, the attorney who is handling his case. "This is my third case like this."

The others were in 2010 and also involved military service members, she said. With 100,000 immigrants serving in the military, there may be hundreds of similar cases, Ricci said.

"It's broken all the way around," she said.

Wednesday, Hernandez's fate hinged on another interview with officials at the Jacksonville office of the Department of Homeland Security.

"I'm super nervous," he said before walking inside for a 10 a.m. appointment. "I only slept two hours last night."

Late in the morning he learned he would qualify for citizenship but there were questions about whether he could be given the oath in Jacksonville or would have to wait for a July ceremony in Tallahassee. …

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