Tallahassee Man, Vietnam Veteran Sworn in as U.S. Citizen

By Julie Montanaro
May 23, 2014

A Vietnam veteran and retired federal employee granted his citizenship just this week wasted no time in applying for a passport.

Mario Hernandez tried to get a passport earlier this year to take his wife on a cruise, but was stunned to discover he was not a U.S. citizen.

Immigration authorities initially denied the Cuban-born Hernandez citizenship, but apologized this week and swore him in.

Today, we were there as he re-registered to vote and applied for that passport again.

"I'm totally super happy. My family and I are just so grateful," Hernandez said afterward.

"I couldn't imagine that our government would have done anything but the right thing," his wife Bonita Hernandez said.

The Hernandez's are grateful the ordeal is over, but worry about other veterans who may be in the same predicament.

By Julie Montanaro
May 21, 2014

A Tallahassee man shocked to discover he was not a U.S. citizen despite his military service and years working for the federal government was sworn in today.

We broke the story in March. It was picked up by networks and major newspapers. Today immigration authorities did a 180 and granted Mario Hernandez his citizenship.

Mario Hernandez - a Vietnam veteran and longtime federal employee -is now officially a U.S. citizen.

He was sworn in in Jacksonville Wednesday afternoon with his wife by his side.

"It feels great, it feels great. I couldn't be any happier," Hernandez said afterward.

Hernandez came to this country with his parents on a freedom flight from Cuba at the age of nine. He later joined the military and went on to a career with the federal bureau of prisons.

He thought he was sworn in the day he joined the U.S. Army but discovered earlier this year there was no record of it.

He found out when he tried to get a passport to take his wife on a cruise.

In March, immigration authorities denied Hernandez U.S. citizenship.

Hernandez walked into the Homeland Security office in Jacksonville Wednesday, not really knowing if he would wind up behind bars or walk out a citizen. He got the latter - and an apology.

"I really appreciate USCIS recognizing this and doing the right thing," his wife Bonita Hernandez said.

Hernandez is now anxious to register to vote again, "and then I'm going to apply for a passport," he said with a laugh. A passport so he can take his wife on that cruise, that dream vacation that started this nightmare.

We'll be talking with the Hernandez' s when they return home.

By Julie Montanaro
May 21, 2014

Mario Hernandez was sworn in as a U.S. citizen soon after a hearing in Jacksonville this afternoon.

His attorney says both the field office director and the officer who initially denied him citizenship both apologized to Hernandez.

We will share more information as soon as we can.

UPDATED May 21, 2014
By Leslie Coursey
Action News Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Good news, bad news in the Mario Hernandez case.

Action News has just learned that Hernandez will be granted citizenship, but it may not happen today as he hoped.

Hernandez recently found out he was not a U.S. citizen, despite having served in Vietnam and having worked at a federal prison for 20 years.

His family legally immigrated from Cuba in 1965. He was given a social security card, and has lived his whole life believing he was a U.S. citizen, paying taxes and voting.

Shortly after 12 p.m., a frustrated Hernandez walked out of the Jacksonville office for the Department of Homeland Security, telling the media that the system is "broken."

He said he was told he would be naturalized today, but that the immigration officer told him he would have to be naturalized in Tallahassee, where he lives. That wouldn't happen until July 4.

Immigration officials have admitted they made a mistake. A spokeswoman told Action News that Hernandez's service in Vietnam should have automatically made him a citizen. That fact was overlooked by a clerk, leading to the confusion happening now. DHS has apologized to Hernandez.

Now, Hernandez and his attorney are waiting to see if a federal judge in Tallahassee will grant a Jacksonville immigration official authority to naturalized Hernandez today.

We'll let you know as soon as we find out.

Updated By: Julie Montanaro
May 15, 2014

A Tallahassee man, stunned to discover he's not a U.S. Citizen after 50 years, will be featured on tonight's CBS Evening News.

We were the first to bring you the story back in March.

Mario Hernandez is a Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after a lengthy career with the federal bureau of prisons. He discovered he wasn't a U.S. citizen when he tried to get a passport to take his wife on a cruise.

Immigration authorities have denied him citizenship.

"It's like a bad dream... it's not a dream, it's definitely real..."said Hernandez.

Hernandez has a second interview with immigration authorities next Wednesday. His lawyer says she's not sure if he'll be arrested or sworn in.

By Julie Montanaro
March 26, 2014

He raised his right hand and joined the army, but now a local veteran is being told he's not an American.

A Vietnam era army veteran - who went on to work years with the federal government - gets the surprise of his life.

He's not a U.S. citizen and immigration authorities tell him he may have to wait years to become one.

"My wife and I, she's about to retire, and we decided to take a cruise," Mario Hernandez said.

Hernandez was stunned to discover he could not apply for a U.S. passport.

"Then I find out, 'Hey', that I'm not a U.S. citizen and I was never made one, according to the records that they don't have," Hernandez said.

Hernandez is incredulous. He came to this county at the age of 9 on a freedom flight from Cuba.

Ten years later he would join the U.S. Army and train for combat in Vietnam.

"I was made a citizen in 1975 when I went into the service," Hernandez said. He served three years stateside.

Hernandez went on to work for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state of Florida and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, passing each and every background check along the way.

But on March 6th of this year, immigration authorities denied him U.S. citizenship.

"He can - worse case scenario - be held indefinitely incarceration, he could be required to regularly check in with immigration under an order of supervision, he can risk his pension, his VA benefits, a lots at stake," says immigration attorney Elizabeth Ricci, who is handling the case pro bono. His military service during a time of hostility should guarantee him naturalization, she said.

"I guess my service didn't mean anything," Hernandez said, "and me working for the government didn't mean anything."

"It's like a bad dream, but I wish I could wake up, and it's not going to end, and it's not a dream. It's the truth."

Hernandez is appealing the decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and the agency agreed to re-open his case this week.

We'll keep you posted on a decision.

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