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Private Romero's 50-Year Long March To Become A U.S. Citizen
by Carl Shusterman

Arthur Romero was born in 1922 to Mexican-born parents who were lawful permanent residents, and later citizens, of the U.S. If he had been born in the U.S. like each of his 13 older siblings, he would have been a citizen by birth and would have been spared over a half-century of trauma.

Instead, his mother decided to have Arthur in Mexico. After his birth, mother and baby entered the U.S. as permanent residents.

His father had suffered discrimination in California because of his Mexican heritage and his dark skin. When Arthur received a 1-A classification from his draft board during World War II, his father ordered his teenage son to go to Mexico rather than enter the U.S. Army. Although Arthur had misgivings about doing so, he did not dare to question his father's authority. Little did he know the price that he would have to pay.

U.S. immigration laws provide that an immigrant who leaves the U.S. to avoid the draft during wartime becomes forever ineligible for U.S. citizenship or even for permanent residence.

Mr. Romero lived in Mexico until 1948. Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, he applied for and was granted a visa to reenter the U.S. He immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army. However, there was a hitch in his plans to make amends for his earlier conduct. Since he had lost his permanent residence, he needed to be a U.S. citizen to enlist. His aunt signed an affidavit that he had been born in the U.S.

During his three-year tenure in the Army, this affidavit became subject to severe scrutiny by various federal agencies. Sometime in 1951, after Private Romero had married a citizen of the U.S., the Immigration Service found him to be illegally in the U.S. Based on the INS' findings, the Army granted him an honorable discharge "for the convenience of the service". The INS brought him to Calexico, California and told him to "voluntarily depart" the U.S. by walking across the border to Mexicali, Mexico. Little did he know that it would take him almost 50 years to earn the right to live in the U.S.

For the next few years, Mr. and Mrs. Romero resided in Mexicali, Mexico although Mrs. Romero crossed the border daily to work at her job in Calexico, California.

Three times, Mrs. Romero applied for a green card for her husband, and three times the application was denied.

Finally, the Romeros returned to the U.S., Mr. Romero with an INS-issued border crossing card. In 1971, he applied for U.S. citizenship on the basis of his wartime service in the U.S. military. The interview went perfectly. However, later he was called in by the INS and asked to withdraw his application because the INS told him that his departure to Mexico during World War II made him permanently ineligible for naturalization.

Although he complied and withdrew his application, INS took no steps to try to deport him. In the meantime, life went on. Mr. and Mrs. Romero lived in the U.S., raised and sent to college their three sons, all of whom are U.S. citizens. Ironically, one son later became the Mayor of Calexico. However, the family always lived with the fear that Mr. Romero might one day be deported. Despite his 30+ years of working and paying taxes in the U.S., his lack of a criminal record and his three years of honorable military service, Mr. Romero was suspended in legal limbo. Even after his retirement, he never asked for or received a single Social Security check, or any benefits from Medicare or the Veterans Administration.

Then came the Internet. In 1998, one of the Romero's sons was referred to our web site by a law school immigration clinic. There, he found a link to INS's web site regarding "Interpretations" for naturalization cases. The link lead him to a 1980 case of a man who, because of a fraudulent enlistment, received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army "for the convenience of the Service". Unlike Mr. Romero, who had lacked the resources to do so, the man had gone to Federal Court to challenge INS's interpretation of the law. He won his case and was granted U.S. citizenship. Because of this case, the INS had changed their position and decided that persons who served during wartime who were discharged "for the convenience of the Service" were nevertheless eligible to be naturalized.

Mr. Romero's son contacted us and asked whether this case applied to his father. We agreed that it did, and we quickly prepared and submitted an application for naturalization for Arthur Romero, then in his mid-70's.

However, because the INS had a very difficult time trying to locate his ancient file and obtain his military records, it took over 18 months and the assistance of Rep. Calvin Dooley (D-CA) to schedule a naturalization interview for Mr. Romero. I recently accompanied him to his interview in Fresno, California. The INS examiner was pleasant, and Mr. Romero passed his U.S. history and government test with flying colors. The INS examiner told him that he had passed, and handed him a letter scheduling him for an October swearing-in ceremony. When we informed Mrs. Romero and their son what had happened, it was all smiles and hugs. See a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Romero and me, taken a few minutes after his interview:

Recently, I received a glowing letter from Mrs. Romero about her husband's swearing-in ceremony. Private Romero's 50-year long march had ended successfully. He had, at long last, become a proud citizen of the United States.

About The Author

Carl Shusterman is a certified Specialist in Immigration Law, State Bar of California
Former U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service Attorney (1976-82)
Board of Governors, American Immigration Lawyers Association (1988-97)
Phone: (213) 623-4592 Fax: (213) 623-3720
Law Offices of Carl Shusterman, 624 So. Grand Ave., Suite 1608
Los Angeles, California 90017