MIAMI (AP) — Immigration authorities on Wednesday apologized for rejecting a Cuban native's naturalization request after the man belatedly discovered he was not a U.S citizen and quickly administered his Oath of Allegiance, finally making him a citizen nearly 50 years after he arrived in this country.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Spokesman Chris Bentley said the agency should have granted 58-year-old Mario Hernandez citizenship because of his Vietnam-era military service. Veterans who serve during designated periods of conflict do not have to meet all the standard requirements for naturalization.
"USCIS made a mistake in the adjudication of Mr. Hernandez's application for citizenship, and apologizes to him for any hardship this caused him and his family," Bentley said in a statement, adding, "this morning after a thorough review of the case with Mr. Hernandez, we were able to approve his naturalization application."
He initially said Hernandez would be able to take his oath and become a citizen at the next naturalization ceremony in his hometown of Tallahassee, but after Hernandez's attorney complained, authorities quickly changed course and naturalized him in their offices.
"USCIS issued a heartfelt apology which we accepted," said Hernandez's attorney Elizabeth Ricci, following the meeting with officials in Tallahassee Wednesday.
Hernandez worked years for the Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons using a Social Security number he received when he arrived in the country as a child. He said he thought he was a U.S. citizen and repeatedly voted.
It was only last fall when he sought a passport to take a cruise with his wife and needed a passport that he discovered the authorities did not list him as a citizen or as a permanent resident. Suddenly, his immigration status was in limbo, and he was under federal investigation.
Ricci said last week it wasn't until she took her client's case to the media that she began to receive a positive response from USCIS. She said before that, officials had focused on Hernandez's voting record, suggesting they might be interested in filing charges related to voter fraud.
Since the Cuban revolution, those who leave the communist island generally get fast-tracked to U.S. residency. Hernandez came in 1965 with his mother and said he assumed she filed immigration papers.
Ricci said she was glad to be able to rectify Hernandez's situation but worried about other immigrants who could not afford legal representation.