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U.S. Army vet wins citizenship after long legal battle over his identity

On his second try, Jose Cervera will finally become a U.S. citizen on Thursday. It took him more than a decade to unravel his identity, and even now he remains unsure of who he is.
Publicado 14 Jul 2022 – 11:48 AM EDT | Actualizado 14 Jul 2022 – 11:48 AM EDT
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Jose Cervera and his 1956 Cuban birth certificate. Crédito: Courtesy of the Cervera family.

A U.S. Army veteran who was denied U.S. citizenship after he couldn't prove his identity has finally won his case and was sworn in on Thursday.

For more than 50 years, Jose 'Joe' Cervera thought he was a U.S. citizen, born in Puerto Rico. He joined the Army during the Vietnam era and then had a long career in private security where he received letters of appreciation from the Secret Service and the White House.

After his mother's death in 2006, he learned a shocking secret. Hidden among his mother's papers, he discovered another birth certificate and learned that he was most likely adopted and brought to the U.S. under an assumed name as a baby.

When he tried to correct the mistake and applied to become a true citizen, he fell into a bureaucratic trap. His citizenship was denied and he faced the threat of deportation.

On Wednesday he was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief - almost. "We can hardly believe it. They called me this morning to tell me I should come tomorrow for the swearing-in ceremony," Cervera told Univision on Wednesday. "We hope when we get there they don't kick him out," added his wife," Bernadette Cervera.

After a minor hiccup on Thursday he was finally sworn in. (He initially wasn't let into the immigration building because he lacked a resident's 'green' card).

Joe Cervera's battle for his identity

It has been a long battle for the Cerveras and their attorney, Elizabeth Ricci.

The U.S.-born father of three, who is married to a U.S. citizen, decided to correct his mother's mistake and in 2010 applied for naturalization. He took the citizenship test and passed the interview, but was ultimately denied citizenship when they realized he had voted without being a citizen.

He apologized to the immigration service for voting, honestly believing he was a legal citizen. He showed officials his military documents indicating that he joined the U.S. Army in August 1974 and was honorably discharged in September 1977.

But, immigration officials decided in April 2011 that his November 2010 vote disqualified him from naturalization. "You have committed an unlawful act that adversely impacts your moral character," the denial letter stated.

More than a decade later, his lawyer succeeded in getting his case re-examined and convinced authorities that a mistake had been made. Cervera was entitled to citizenship because of his wartime military service and because he was an innocent child at the time of the fraud. His mother had always told him that he was a U.S. citizen, born in Puerto Rico.

In a new citizenship interview in June, Cervera said the attending officer apologized. "He said my case file had been passed from hand to hand and no one wanted to deal with it. He told me not to worry, that he was going to personally take care of it," Cervera said.

"Mr. Cervera's case is another example of how, for more than half a century, our military and other government organizations failed to do due diligence," said his immigration attorney, Elizabeth Ricci.

"Once he did his own research and tried to naturalize, it took 12 years to finally convince USCIS that he was worthy of being a citizen of the country he enlisted to serve. Fortunately, he is now a U.S. citizen. I am cautiously optimistic that some of the thousands of other foreign-born veterans may eventually naturalize," she added.

Residents can serve in the military without being citizens first. Sometimes they enlist in the military believing they automatically become citizens without having to do any additional paperwork. If they register to vote and cast a ballot, it is considered a felony making them ineligible for citizenship.

"I know ignorance is not a defense in the law, but sometimes people are honestly caught in situations they don't control and the military makes mistakes too," said Bernadette Cervera.

Cervera was a trusted security officer

In Cervera's case, he had worked as director of security for the luxury island club of Fisher Island, located between Miami and Miami Beach, a district that has one of the highest per capita incomes of any zip code in the United States.

He provided security services for the likes of President Bill Clinton and General Norman Schwarzkopf, the former head of U.S. forces in the Middle East in the first Gulf War.

Over the years, Cervera has tried to find out who he really is. He has three birth certificates, one from Cuba, one from Puerto Rico and a third sent to him by the state of New York after learning he might have been adopted there before being taken to Cuba.

He doesn't know which of them is real, if any of them is. Nor does he know how old he is or when his birthday really is. He thinks he is either 64 or 65.

Using his DNA, he contacted an expert on Cuban ancestry. It now appears that her father may have been Yndalecio Angel Alejandrez Peña, a late Cuban explayboy.

"In the end, immigration settled on my Cuban birth certificate," he said.

Now, he really doesn't care much who he is, thanks to the loving support of his wife and children.

"We are very happy now that it's finally all over," Joe Cervera said.

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