When Paul Canton, 48, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1991 he says he surrendered his foreign passport and figured he was on a fast track to U.S. citizenship.
Now, 29 years later he’s stateless and facing possible deportation – despite serving four years as a U.S. Marine.
For decades, Canton, who was born in New Zealand, assumed he was a citizen. “That’s what the recruiting officer told me when I enlisted. He said it was automatic,” he told Univision by phone from his home outside Ocala, a hilly region of horse farms in central Florida.
Now he lives in fear of deportation after his request for naturalization was denied by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last month.
“It’s all a shock. I’m in a little over my head,” he said, saying it was especially worrying for his U.S.-born wife, and their two children who were also born in this country.
“ It’s a horrible feeling to look your wife and kids in the face knowing you might be sent thousands of miles away,” he added.
Canton said he left Australia aged 17 on an exchange program and spent a couple of years working on cattle ranches in Colorado and Wyoming before deciding to enlist in the Marines.
His four years of military service took him for a year to Okinawa, Japan, before he was stationed at the U.S. Marine base at Quantico, Virginia. Along the way Corporal Canton was awarded the National Defense Medal as well as a Good Conduct Medal and Rifle Marksman Badge.
After completing four years he was honorably discharged in November 1995, but was on in-active duty for another four years which meant he could be called up in an emergency.
Canton never received any official citizenship document or residency. But his belief he was a citizen was reinforced when he was able to obtain a Social Security card and drivers license simply by showing his official discharge papers, known as a DD214 form, which listed his mother in Australia as his nearest living relative.
Married with American wife and sons
He married and has two boys now aged 13 and 15, with his wife Paulina. He also registered to vote and paid U.S. taxes. Public records show he cast several ballots, including the November 2016 presidential election in which he voted for Donald Trump.
His problems began in the summer of 2019 when he attempted to renew his Florida driver license. A Florida Highway and Motor Vehicles agent informed him that he needed to present proof of U.S. citizenship. "It was then that I realized I might not be a U.S. citizen,” he said. He called up the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency and was told to file an application for naturalization.
He went for an interview in August at the Orlando office where he got what he called a “condescending and rude” reception. He says he was told: “I don’t know how you got into the country. I don’t know how you got into the military and I don’t know why you are still here.”
In January he received an official denial of his naturalization application, accusing him of committing a crime by voting when he knew he was not a citizen. The denial also said he had failed to establish “any extenuating circumstances” to warrant being allowed to stay in the country. It noted that he illegally registered to vote in October 2002 and voted eight times between 2004 and 2016.
The letter stated that in order to be eligible for naturalization “you must demonstrate that you are a person of good moral character.” The letter incorrectly stated that he had been convicted of unlawful voting, proving that he lacked good moral character.
Canton insists he voted without any idea he was committing a crime and his lawyer confirmed that he has no criminal record in the United States.
"Pitfalls of citizenship"
Canton says he decided to take his case to the media after talking to fellow military veterans at his local American Legion post. “ I want to warn my fellow veterans of the pitfalls of citizenship,” he said. “This whole mess doesn’t need to happen. They should just give them (veterans) citizenship on the way out the door,” when they are discharged, he said.
While he appeals his case Canton is uncertain about his immigration status and worries about losing his job as a farm manager.
“He was just a kid when he enlisted and was told he would become a U.S. citizen,” said his immigration lawyer, Elizabeth Ricci. “In the military you are not supposed to question orders. That’s insubordination. There’s got to be so many more cases of veterans like him lurking,” she added.
She has represented other similar cases including one German-born man, Alex Runtchke, who enlisted as a teenager and did not realize until two decades later that he was not a citizen.
“It’s more common than you think. There are probably thousands in this predicament,” said Omer Smith, 77, chairman of the immigration committee with the Florida branch of the American Legion, the largest veterans organization in the country.
The number of veterans who were born outside the United States stands at approximately 530,000, representing three percent of all 18.6 million veterans nationwide, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The U.S. Marine Corps website confirms that recruits must have at least a green card in order to join. Univision attempted to seek comment from the U.S. Marine Corps but received no answer prior to publication of this article. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was also unable to comment as it does not discuss individual cases for privacy reasons.
“It’s pretty pathetic,” said Shane Harris, 38, a former U.S. Marine who served with Canton and now works on an oil field in Wyoming. “There were others in our unit who were foreign born, from the Philippines and from the U.K.,” he said. “When you are promised one thing and they try and grab the rug from under your feet, it’s fairly disheartening.”
Ricci believes Canton’s problem was created by his Marine recruiting officer who made a mistake when he enlisted. “There’s lots of gaping holes in this,” she said. Ricci noted that non-U.S. veterans can qualify for citizenship if they served during wartime, or what is known legally as a ’Designated Period of Hostility.’
In an appeal of his case filed this week, Ricci claimed that Canton was eligible to naturalize due to the fact that he enlisted on March 29, 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, otherwise known as Operation ‘Desert Storm.’
Smith, who served 23 years in the U.S. Army, said cases like Canton deserved special consideration. “Most people, when they think about immigration all they see are the people down on the border trying to cross,” he said. In its effort to recruit for the armed forces, the Department of Defense has offered fast tracks for citizenship as an incentive. “The recruiters aren’t always familiar with the rules. They insinuate things, like citizenship. Sometimes, immigrants aren’t vetted properly,” he said.
“They say he (Canton) should have known. But to me, it’s our responsibility as a country to take care of all those who have served. I don’t care where you are from,” he added.