Mistaken For 40 Years, Tallahassee Resident Finally Becomes U.S. Citizen

May 23, 2014

Hernandez with his naturalization certificate
Credit Elizabeth Ricci

Tallahassee resident Mario Hernandez has become a naturalized citizen after decades of thinking he already was  one. 

Hernandez came to the U.S. in the ‘60s from Cuba.  He was 9 years old.  Over the next few years, Hernandez lived a normal American life in Fullerton, California.  When he went into the Army in 1975, his citizenship status was checked, but in an interview with WFSU this March, Hernandez said he sailed right through the hearing.

“I knew that I had the little card – you know, my parole card,” Hernandez says, “and there might have been a question with my status, and they sent me in front of an immigration judge in Long Beach, California.  I went in, he looked at it, boom, boom – 'It’s fine for him to go into service.'”

But Hernandez wasn’t actually a citizen.  A Cuban immigrant, he was granted parole under a law called the Cuban Adjustment Act.  After a year, parolees can apply for permanent residency – what’s often called the green card.  But Hernandez’s attorney, Elizabeth Ricci, says applying for permanent residency isn’t necessary.   

“Most Cubans by far decide to become permanent residents,” Ricci says. “A parolee can live and work in the United States legally, they get a Social Security number and a driver license and everything else, but they don’t have the same protections that a permanent resident does or, of course, a citizen.”

One thing parolees are not supposed to do is enlist in the military, which is reserved for permanent residents or citizens.  At his immigration hearing, Hernandez took an oath that he thought naturalized him as a U.S. citizen. 

But for Hernandez, joining the Army wasn’t the only place where government institutions have failed to notice his citizenship status.  Hernandez went on to work in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Prisons and for the state of Florida – no one realizing he wasn’t technically a citizen. 

Ricci says the oversight is unsettling.

“The jobs that he held required citizenship and that was never found out,” Ricci says.  “The background checks that Bureau of Prisons did didn’t reveal what a quick search on the state.travel.gov website did for getting a passport.”

It wasn’t until Hernandez tried to get a passport to go on a cruise with his wife that an agency looked hard enough to see he was still just a parolee. 

But the wild card is Hernandez’s combat service. Ricci says active duty veterans are able to apply for citizenship immediately whether they have a green card or not.

“If you serve during a designated period of hostility, which he did during Vietnam, he was allowed to jump straight from parole status straight to naturalization, and they ignored that,” Ricci says.

But after widespread media attention, Hernandez was granted naturalization on his appeal, and Ricci says Hernandez has a full to-do list.

“Friday he’s going to file for his passport, which ironically requires that he give his naturalization certificate in, which will be hard for him to part with, but then he will request a passport,” Ricci says. “And then he will reinstate himself on the voter roll. That’s the first thing he’s going to do.  And then, when everything settles down, he has said he wants to go on the cruise.”