A Vietnam War veteran's identity and future in the U.S. changed in an instant when he applied for a passport and was told he'd never been an American citizen after all.
"I feel like my heart's been ripped out of my chest ... I really do..."
Immigration Services told Mario Hernandez not only is he not a citizen, but he's not even a legal resident, despite serving three years in the U.S. Army and working for the Bureau of Prisons for 22 years.
Hernandez says he first fell in love with America when he escaped from Cuba as a refugee in 1965. He was just 9 years old.
Cubans during that time were granted amnesty and were given social security numbers. They were, not, however, granted U.S. citizenship. Refugees could apply for residency after a year in the U.S., but Hernandez's parents never filed the necessary paperwork.
So, that could be where part of the confusion came in. But Hernandez and his lawyer Elizabeth Ricci argue Hernandez should have been granted citizenship upon his service in Vietnam.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, such as military service under "periods of hostility," are grounds for immediate citizenship.
Employment with the Bureau of Prisons requires citizenship and recurring background checks, yet Hernandez was never told of any issues when he started 22 years ago.
Ricci says Immigration Services is trying to protect itself. "I think they are gravely embarrassed ... and are trying to shift the burden on him now to make him look like a criminal."
Now, the veteran is in a grey area. He could even face jail time because of his participation in past elections as a non-citizen.
Hernandez has voted in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter.
"I'm living in a bad dream, and it's like, I'm hoping I wake up."
Hernandez's wife has started a petition to the Secretary of Homeland Security, and so far the page has reached over 80,000 signatures. His wife writes that Hernandez's recent naturalization application was denied.
She says he was told to first receive residency through the Cuban Adjustment Act and then try to obtain citizenship again in five years, but they don't want to wait that long. In the meantime, Hernandez plans to fight for his future in the country he loves.