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One man’s immigration dilemma: “We don’t know who you really are.”

Jose, or Joe Cervera, 64, has three birth certificates, but he doesn’t know which – if any - is his. His application for U.S. citizenship was rejected for lack of "good moral character," even though he served in the U.S. Army. Now he’s worried he could be thrown in immigration detention. (Leer en español)
5 Oct 2020 – 07:53 PM EDT
Jose Cervera and his 1956 Cuban birth certificate. Crédito: Courtesy of the Cervera family.

MIAMI - For more than 50 years Jose ‘Joe’ Cervera thought he was a U.S. citizen, born in Puerto Rico. He joined the military during the Vietnam era and later had a long career in private security with letters of appreciation from the Secret Service and the White House.

He is also married to an American from Pennsylvania and the father of three U.S.-born sons.

But, after his mother died in 2006, he learned a shocking secret. Hidden in his mother’s papers he discovered another birth certificate, and he learned that he was most likely adopted and brought to the United States under a false name, as a baby.

Rather than being Jose Antonio Cervera, born on Christmas Eve, 1955 in San Jose, Puerto Rico. In fact, his real name was Jose Evaristo Cervera, born on the same date in Havana, Cuba, but a year later, in 1956.

To correct his mother’s mistake, in June 2010 he applied for naturalization. He took his test and passed an interview in September, but while his application was still being processed, he compounded his mother’s mistake by voting in the November mid-term elections.

"I considered myself an American"

“I profoundly apologize for voting. I was not trying to willfully misrepresent anything; it was a matter of habit. I considered myself an American and … voting was part of that,” he told Univision.

In fact, Cervera was for many years a registered Republican and had voted in numerous elections. Cervera said he explained during the immigration service interview that his mother – he calls her his “presumed mother” - had lied to him.

“I was truthful and cooperative to the best extent of my knowledge,” he said.

He showed immigration officials his military papers showing that joined the U.S. Army in August 1974 and was honorably discharged in September 1977.

He also had his marriage certificate from 1975. He has his American-born wife Bernadette, from Pennsylvania, are happily married with three grown up sons. He had worked as director of security for the luxury island club of Fisher Island, sandwiched between Miami and Miami Beach. He had provided security for the likes of President Bill Clinton and General Norman Schwarzkopf, the former head of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

He also presented certificates of appreciation from the Secret Service and the White House from events he had been involved in.

But, at the end of his immigration interview he said the supervisor told him: “We don’t know who you really are.”

Lack of "moral character"

Immigration officials decided in April 2011 that his vote in November 2010 made him ineligible for naturalization. “You have committed an unlawful act which adversely reflects upon your moral character,” the rejection later stated.

“The decision by INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) was devastating to me. I cried. My wife cried,” he said.

“Non-citizens like me have served in the armed forces during peace and war time with many giving their lives in service to this country since its inception. Surprisingly there are many non-citizen veterans in similar cases like mine that thought they were citizens and have been denied citizenship, stuck in limbo and in many cases have been deported back to their native country,” he added.

His wife, Bernadette stands firmly with him. “We’ve been together for 45 years. He’s a patriot to a tee,” she told Univision.

Three birth certificates

Cervera has tried over the years to find out who he really is. He has three birth certificates, one from Cuba, another from Puerto Rico and a third which he was sent by New York state after he learned he might have been adopted there before being brought to Cuba.

He doesn’t know which, if any of them, is true. Nor does he know how old he is, or when his birthday really is. Now in his mid-60s, he doesn’t really care too much any more about all of that, thanks to the loving support of his wife and sons.

“We are who we’re told we are”

He points out that he is not responsible for any of the birth certificates. “We are who we’re told we are,” he said.

But Cervera is intent on fixing his identity in one crucial respect. “What I want more than anything is to be sworn in as a valid American citizen. That’s what I’m used to being. Nothing else matters as far as I’m concerned,” he added.

This much he knows. His mother, Maria Bulnes, grew up in Cuba and married an army general. Her family owned an important hotel, the Chateau Miramar. After she divorced, Cervera says she left the island secretly in August 1959 with the help of Charles Smathers, the U.S. Senator for Florida, and a Cuban exile banker, Charles ‘Bebe’ Rebozo, who was a close friend of then U.S. congressman, Richard Nixon, the future U.S. president.

Cervera and his mother had a falling out in 1973 when he was 16, he left home and never returned. After he discovered his real birth certificate, he said he began to doubt everything about his identity, including who his real parents were.

He learned later from relatives in Cuba that he was adopted but no-one was sure when or where he was born. “His mother was very secretive,” said Bernadette. After she married Cervera, his sister confided in Bernadette that he was adopted in New York and that his real parents – a German man and an American actress - had died in a car accident.

Doubts about his identity

His mother claimed his date of birth, December 24, “was a Christmas present to herself,” she said.
They found travel records indicating that she had traveled to New York around that time. State officials sent him a birth certificate in the name Jose Ramon Cervera, but born in September 1956. “We were excited,” he said.

But when they got more details of the birth certificate, including the names of relatives in Tampa, they discovered that Jose Ramon Cervera was dead.

When he checked with officials in Puerto Rico it was no better. He sent them a copy of his birth certificate recording that he was born in Yauco on the south coast. But officials wrote back saying there was no record of his birth. Furthermore, due to identity fraud issues, the U.S. government declared in 2010 it would no longer accept Puerto Rican birth certificates issued prior to July 1, 2010 as proof of U.S. citizenship.

Cervera contacted Cuban authorities and was a issued an odd-looking civil registry document dated in May 1960, stating that his birth on Christmas Eve 1956 had been officially recorded several months later, on March 6, 1957. Even more oddly, it said his parents Jose Cervera Bahamonde and Maria Bulnes Sordia, were “natives of Sao Paulo, Brazil.”

Using his DNA, he contacted a Cuban ancestry expert. It now appears his father may have been Yndalecio Angel Alejandrez Pena, a deceased former Cuban playboy.

Now, with time running out, Cervera says he worries he won’t be able to renew his Florida drivers’ license and no longer be able to fly domestically or even enter a federal building.

An immigration error

In desperation he turned to immigration attorney, Elizabeth Ricci. She says the rejection of his naturalization application was a mistake, and his voting record should not exclude him from citizenship.

“It was stupid. But you have to understand his state of mind. He felt so American,” said Ricci, who is representing Cervera pro bono.

When he applied for naturalization he was turned down on the basis of a lack of “good moral character” because of his having voted illegally.

In fact, Ricci argues that nothing in the law requires someone applying for citizenship who has served honorably in the military to show a period of good moral character. She said immigration officials relied on a clause in the Immigration and Nationality Act, that requires military applicants to be of good moral character “for at least one year prior to filing the application for naturalization.”

But Ricci says Cervera was never charged or convicted of having illegally registering to vote or having voted. “The only thing Cervera has ever been charged with was fishing with a license which was dropped,” she said.

Furthermore, since Cervera’s illegal vote was more than nine years ago his application should not have been rejected, said Ricci.

“It’s not ideal. It is what it is. But he served during Vietnam. So, let’s make it right,” she added.

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