He deported thousands of immigrants, and then he himself turned out to be an illegal immigrant in America: the incredible story of a US border control officer - ForumDaily
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He deported thousands of immigrants, and then he turned out to be an illegal immigrant in America: the incredible story of a US border control officer

The former customs officer worked for almost 20 years at US border control until he found out he too was an undocumented illegal immigrant, reports CNN.

Photo: IStock

Raul Rodriguez says he will never forget the moment he realized his life was built on lies.

He was so shocked that he felt the blood rush to his legs. In a matter of seconds, a family secret destroyed the way he saw the world and his place in it.

“This day will never be forgotten. … It's a terrible feeling,” he says.

It all started in April 2018, when federal investigators showed him a shocking document: a Mexican birth certificate with his name on it.

A conversation with his father shortly thereafter confirmed what Rodriguez feared once he saw the documents. The American birth certificate he used for decades turned out to be fake. Rodriguez was not a US citizen. Rodriguez says he had no idea he was born in Mexico until his father's confession that day, but he immediately realized how serious the situation was. For almost two decades he worked on the border in the United States.

He estimates that he helped deport thousands of people while working for the US Customs and Border Protection and, before that, for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Suddenly, he was on the opposite side, fighting for a chance to stay in the United States.

On the subject: It will become almost impossible to get asylum at the US border: Biden tightens rules

After that, Rodriguez quickly lost a lot: his job at the CBP, his friends in law enforcement, his self-esteem. He hasn't seen his father since that day in April 2018 and says he never wants to talk to him again.

But now, nearly five years later, Rodriguez, 54, says he realizes he also gained something amazing from the moment he learned he was not a U.S. citizen. “It started out as a nightmare,” he says. “But then it turned out that this is what I had to do.”

For Rodriguez, his unexpected journey began the day he learned the truth about himself.

Helping hand

She heard his story. At first, Diana Vega could not believe the information she saw in her Facebook feed.

Diana helps deported veterans and veterans facing deportation. She is the Vice President of Repatriate Our Patriots. She saw firsthand how brutal and confusing the US immigration system can be. But it was unlike any story she had heard before.

“Someone who thought he was born here, grew up here, served in the military, and then was told, 'You're not American,'” she said.

And how, she wondered, would someone who worked for the CBP face deportation?

Vega, who lives in El Paso, Texas, wasn't the only one surprised by the undocumented ex-immigration officer's story. Rodriguez's plight attracted local and national media attention. According to Vega, many responded to the report, especially in the border areas.

"They said, 'This is what you get for going against your people,'" Diana said.

But she saw the story differently.

She served in the army. Rodriguez too. Prior to his career with CBP and the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Rodriguez served in the Navy. He served from 1992 to 1997 in Jacksonville and San Diego and in Iceland and the Persian Gulf as a member of the Navy Military Police.

According to Vega, anyone who has served in the military knows what it's like to follow orders and put aside their personal feelings. And for her, Rodriguez's job at CBP was no different from service.

“It was his job,” she says. “Some jobs aren't the best, but we all have to follow orders.” This has always been important to the defense of this country. This was done to take care of the United States and the people."

So when others turned their backs on Rodriguez, Vega extended a helping hand. In their first phone conversation, she heard how lonely Rodriguez felt.

“Those whom he considered his brothers turned their backs on him,” Anita Rodriguez, Raul’s wife, recalls those days with tears. “He couldn’t travel outside of his own backyard.” She said it was devastating to watch her husband sink into depression after losing the support of so many people and institutions on which he had counted.

“There were days when I left the house and thought: “Will he be all right when we get home?” she says, her voice trembling with excitement.

Anita Rodriguez works for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and met her husband when they were both studying to be inspectors for the immigration agency, then known as INS.

Since then, she has seen how he devoted so many years to his work and deserved high praise. In 2006, officials brought him to Washington to present him with an award for his honest work in stopping smuggling. The last few years, she says, have brought a completely different reality to their family.

“He has traveled all over the world for the United States,” she says. “And then I couldn’t leave my own backyard.” He couldn't get past the checkpoint."

Rodriguez knew that being deported to Mexico would mean leaving behind a wife, four children, and five grandchildren. While he fought for the chance to stay with his family, the people he once considered colleagues became the people he feared.

He lost everything when he lost his job

Rodriguez says years of federal background checks have failed to turn up his Mexican birth certificate. This only became known when Rodriguez applied for a visa for his brother.

Records show that prosecutors declined to file a case against Rodriguez after investigators with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General could not find any evidence that he knowingly provided the government with a fake birth certificate. This meant that he would not face criminal charges, but his job was still under threat.

After putting him on leave during the investigation, CBP fired him in 2019 because he was not a US citizen and therefore no longer qualified to serve as an officer, Rodriguez said.

“Everything I've ever done has been in law enforcement. I lost everything: my job, who I thought I was, my identity,” Rodriguez said.

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"All allegations against CBP employees are dealt with uniformly in accordance with applicable Department of Homeland Security policy," CBP said in a statement.

Shortly after losing his job, Rodriguez got a tattoo on his left arm. It features the Mexican flag splitting his CBP badge in two.

“Being a Mexican citizen disrupted my career and tore it apart,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez no longer works and relies on disability benefits he receives due to a head injury sustained while serving in the Navy. He remains proud of the honesty award he received at work. It still sits on a shelf in his living room. And he keeps a photo on his phone of him shaking hands with the CBP commissioner that day.

But he says many of the friends he thought he made over his years at the agency are gone.

“They left me because they think I’m illegal,” he says. — The messages and calls that kept his phone buzzing all day were gone. At a local restaurant, he was silently ignored by someone he had previously invited to dinner at his home. He just turns away, lowers his head and doesn’t look up as he walks by.”

Because of this, he felt lost and betrayed. He says that so many things he thought were right turned out to be wrong.

Rodriguez realized that he was also changing

He found unexpected allies in a cause he had never heard of before. Raul and Anita Rodriguez had years of experience in the US immigration system, but meeting Vega brought to light problems they didn't even know existed.

“We were very surprised. We have never heard of the deportation of veterans,” says Anita Rodriguez.

The Biden administration announced a new initiative to help deported veterans in 2021, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorcas saying at the time that officials are "committed to returning service members, veterans, and their immediate families who have been unfairly deported."

Since then, the Department of Homeland Security says it has helped more than 65 veterans return.

But it is still unclear exactly how many US military veterans the United States has deported over the years, or how many have remained abroad.

A 2019 Government Accountability Office report showed that Immigration, Customs and Law Enforcement did not always follow their own policies on veterans' affairs and did not keep track of how many veterans were expelled from the country.

Lawyers say more needs to be done to link the deportees to the Biden administration's relief program and to support veterans once they return to the United States. Vega estimates there could be thousands of veterans who have been deported and veterans who are in immigration detention. They are still there and not getting enough help.

The Department of Homeland Security says returning veteran resource information is available on its website and notes that a May 2022 policy directive requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement to consider military service when deciding how to handle a case.

Most of the veterans who faced deportation were honorably discharged from the military, only to return to civilian life and be charged with crimes.

Rodriguez's case was different; he had not been convicted of any crime and did not even know he was an immigrant when he joined the army.

But Raul and Anita Rodriguez say that in Vega and other defenders of deported veterans, they found a lost sense of community.

"It's just amazing, these people, the love we felt from them - and the acceptance," Anita Rodriguez said. “People were willing to help my husband without even meeting him.”

Raul Rodriguez knew he wanted to repay this kindness. He realized that his experience as someone who worked in the immigration system could be valuable to fellow veterans who were trying to return to the US or become US citizens. The thought of contributing to this cause thrilled him. And he began to volunteer to help the repatriation of our patriots.

But he also remembered the fear that haunted him: soon he, too, could become a deported veteran.

"You are not alone"

Vega knew that Rodriguez, like many others, was fighting for his life. And she knew he needed all the allies he could find.

She told others in her organization about the incident. They asked lawmakers for help on his behalf, urged him to register with the VA for medical care, and did everything they could to support him.

“We were just really worried and trying to plan in advance what would happen if he was deported,” says Danica James, executive director of Repatriate Our Patriots.

Lawyers feared that his past work at the CBP would make Rodriguez a target for cartels and other criminal organizations south of the border. They worked to find out where he could live safely. And as Rodriguez prepared to leave for an important immigration hearing in November, Vega tried to cheer him up.

“Whatever the outcome, you will get through this. We will find a way to appeal this,” she told him. - Just don't lose faith. You are not alone".

Later that day, Vega says Rodriguez called her with some exciting news.

The judge said she plans to rule in his favor and grant him an exemption, a key step that will allow Rodriguez to become a legal resident of the United States. But there was still a catch: the law only allows 4000 such cases a year to be approved, so Rodriguez will have to wait again.

It may be years before he receives a document confirming that he is in the country legally, and years after that, before he can become a US citizen. Every day, Rodriguez checks the Immigration Court website for more information. And every day he sees the same word that describes his case: “pending.”

He knows this is his best chance to stay in the country. A previous application for citizenship through his wife was rejected. He says that over the years, his case has faced strange setbacks that have left him feeling like he's being punished even when he tried to do the right thing.

“All I asked for was just to treat me like everyone else. I served this country for so many years. I think I deserve something - at least a chance to stay in it, ”he says.

His November hearing earned him a reprieve, but it's hard for Rodriguez to celebrate. His Mexican-born eldest son also lost his US citizenship when Rodriguez's Mexican birth certificate was discovered. He received temporary permission to stay in the United States due to his father's military service, but is still trying to find a job and is afraid of being separated from his wife and children. Rodriguez says that watching his son suffer was horrendous.

"Even though it's not my fault, I still feel guilty that he's going through this because of me, because of my status," says Rodriguez.

He knows all too well the emotional and financial costs of living in limbo, even considering the prospect of a court ruling in his favor in the future.

"I'm still limited in my abilities," says Rodriguez.

But Rodriguez is also beginning to look to the future. His fight against deportation opened his eyes to things he hadn't seen before.

In his spare time these days, Rodriguez is doing his best to support efforts to bring deported veterans back to the United States and help those who have recently returned find their footing. He is also trying to help lawyers track down veterans in immigration custody.

“He changed,” Vega says. “He still has some weight of the problem on his shoulders, but it doesn’t affect him as much as it used to.”

Once his own immigration case is resolved, Rodriguez says he hopes to work more directly with veterans inside and outside the US to help them navigate the immigration system.

“Being able to travel will allow me to do that,” he says.

“I was blind,” he says, describing his life before his own immigration ordeal began. “I didn’t see what was happening.”

He still believes that immigration laws should be respected. But he says he now understands that so many people who try to do the right thing get stuck in endless processes.

“I've been on both sides and I feel for them even more now because of what I've been through. And now I know what they went through,” he says. “It’s a constant struggle.”

First of all, Rodriguez says, veterans who fought for the United States should not be deported or suffer in hospitals abroad.

“If the government treats its own patriots like that, can you imagine what it will do to its people? It's a shame,” he says.

The Department of Homeland Security says the government is committed to helping veterans access benefits and services, as well as helping service members become citizens when they qualify. More than 10 military personnel became US citizens last year, a spokesman for the agency said.

“We are deeply grateful for the service and self-sacrifice of military personnel, veterans and their families,” the spokesman said.

You may be interested in: top New York news, stories of our immigrants, and helpful tips about life in the Big Apple - read it all on ForumDaily New Y.

But Rodriguez says his experience made him feel rejected and abandoned by the government he served, and he says he's met other veterans who share similar feelings. The situation pisses him off. But sitting at the dinner table at his home in Texas - about 15 km from the Mexican border - he smiles when a text message appears on his screen.

It's from a deported veteran who recently returned to the United States.

"Hi brother. We have all been praying about your situation. I hope you and your family are okay,” the message read.

After more than a year of communication and correspondence, they plan to meet in person soon. It's a reminder of new friendships and a new calling that Rodriguez has found.

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