A video screen grab shows Navy veteran and former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Raul Rodriguez in an interview for The Atlantic magazine posted on Feb. 14, 2020.

A video screen grab shows Navy veteran and former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Raul Rodriguez in an interview for The Atlantic magazine posted on Feb. 14, 2020. (YouTube)

(Tribune News Service) — When Rene Rodriguez wanted to become a U.S. citizen, his brother Raul — with nearly 25 years working for the government, serving his country, and who maintained a clean criminal record — seemed well-positioned to help.

Raul Rodriguez, 54, walked briskly through downtown Brownsville one December afternoon recalling the times he sat inside the office of the Gateway International Bridge where he worked as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer interpreting immigration law for the Office of Field Operations, or OFO.

OFO officers inspected cars coming back from Mexico that warm day, a job that while physically tiring was preferred by many compared to Rodriguez’s duties.

“They rather be in the heat and cold checking cars than being inside in the AC processing,” he said.

People with visas, asylum requests, questionable documents, or no documents ended up before Rodriguez. As a passport controller he began the lengthy investigating process.

“It creates a stack of paper about this big,” he said, stretching his palms the length of an accordion. “There’s hundreds of forms that you have to fill out. And you have to memorize those forms, where to get them.”

The job required a lot of writing, research and juggling multiple deadlines.

“You had to learn how to manipulate the law to fit what you were doing,” Rodriguez explained. “Because you have to know the section of the law that you’re applying to that case, and you don’t apply the same law to all cases. So you have to find the right one.”

Rodriguez didn’t mind the hard work. He grew up fighting to survive.

As the child of a struggling farmer just east of Nuevo Progreso, food was not always accessible.

“We ate a lot of stuff that normal people won’t eat because we were hungry,” Rodriguez recalled.

Large rats from the “monte,” quelite, a plant that tasted like spinach, badgers, raccoons, rabbits, doves, fish and nutria (a large rodent) helped keep the family nourished.

Rodriguez lived with his parents for five years before he was sent to his aunt and uncle in Mission, so he formed few memories of his parents, including his father.

“He made a lot of bad decisions,” Rodriguez said. Gambling, alcohol and domestic abuse were burdens he recalled his mother shouldered.

His mother, though not emotionally expressive, cared for her children, Rodriguez recalled.

When Rodriguez began working for the government, he tried returning that tenderness by sending money and helping fix his parents’ home.

Rodriguez’s dedication to his family and work was rewarded with accolades, but some saw his heritage, dark skin and Spanish name as suspicious.

Winter Texans returning from Mexico through the international bridge spurned his obligatory citizenship question by questioning Rodriguez’ legal status. Border Patrol agents who saw him near the border would ask to see his documents and verify his citizenship.

At work, the inquisitiveness was relentless.

CBP officers would tease, “I bet you you’re illegal,” Rodriguez said. Then one day someone called him nutria, large rodents that swim in Valley canals, ponds and rivers.

“They’d say,” Rodriguez recalled, “Hey, how do you keep the uniform dry?”

Some would call him an OFC, initials that stand for official false claim. U.S. law states that if someone makes an official false claim to citizenship they can never become a U.S. citizen.

Rodriuez felt it was mean-spirited, but he didn’t let it bother him.

In 2009, when his brother Rene wanted to become a U.S. citizen, Rodriguez began the legal and years-long process to petition for him.

Then, one day in 2018, the officer who helped process immigration papers for decades, even aided deportations, was himself found to be in the country illegally.

His brother’s case was terminated, but Rodriguez faced greater consequences.

In the eyes of the U.S. government, Rodriguez lied about his citizenship, falsely claiming to be a citizen in the country. It was enough to start deportation proceedings.

“I signed a blank check to this country, but this country did not give me that same loyalty,” Rodriguez said. “It wasn’t just a job, it was a duty to follow that oath to the best of your ability. And if that means losing your life, that’s what it is.”

CBP placed him on leave without pay, though he would eventually lose his job.

“From one day [to the next] they treated him like he was the worst thing that ever happened to them without remembering all the things that he did for them while he was working for CBP,” Jaime Diez, Rodriguez’s immigration attorney, said.

In the 30 years Diez has worked as an attorney specializing in immigration, this was a first.

Rodriguez, familiar with immigration law but unfamiliar with his own status, has spent the last nearly five years pleading with immigration courts while wondering why his parents never told him the truth.

Rodriguez’s mother died in 2013, before his status was revealed. The tension grew and further strained the relationship with his father.

“He still won’t admit that what he did was wrong,” Rodriguez said.

He is unsure about the reasons he was sent to the U.S. Another sister was similarly given away in the household that grew in spite of poverty-stricken conditions.

The first year was the hardest, Rodriguez admitted.

Rodriguez and his wife, also a CBP officer, worked hard to shrink the budget based on two government salaries. They refinanced their home and relied on the Hazelwood Act to help with tuition. That same year, Rodriguez was determined to be 100% disabled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a designation that helped financially.

Losing the job bore greater significance than just a paycheck, though.

“You’re losing your identity,” Rodriguez explained. “It was almost 25 years of federal service, just to tell you, you’re no longer an officer. You’re no longer in Customs. All I saw was that my badge was lost, then I didn’t have my badge and my gun anymore, which plays a huge role in law enforcement.”

For Rodriguez, the badge and gun were totems of a community.

“You don’t socialize with people other than law enforcement, because law enforcement takes care of law enforcement,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody would see me in town, and they just kind of — I knew they knew I was there — they just turn around like I wasn’t there, or they go the other way. And, and it hurt to see that, that what you thought was your whole world just kind of like [was] no longer there.”

As he worked to cope with his social existence, Rodriguez and his lawyer were also trying to find ways to keep him home in the U.S. with his wife, two children and grandchildren.

It wasn’t as easy as trying to come in as a spouse to an American citizen, Diez said.

“The government’s position was that because he claimed to be a citizen, even though he did it without knowing that he was not born in the United States, he couldn’t become a legal permanent resident through this way,” Diez said.

“It tells you how messed up this system is,” Diez said. “When I hear people say, you know, you need to do it the right way. I mean, I take it personally because they have no idea what they’re talking about. And I think this case tells you that. It tells you that unfortunately, the laws are so archaic and so unfair, that they really don’t provide for anyone, for a lot of people an opportunity to have a chance to stay here.”

Legally, Diez attempted something that for many would not work. Rodriguez qualified for the process, “but Cancellation of Removal is also not the easiest thing to obtain.” Most people don’t meet the threshold, his attorney said.

In order to qualify, an applicant needs to show they’ve been in the U.S. for 10 years, have a good moral character — an easy standard for Rodriguez to meet with his military and federal service records — and prove that deportation would cause extreme hardship on the spouse.

“In this case, we were able to show that he met those three requirements, especially in the case of his wife,” Diez said, referring to Rodriguez’s wife — a CBP agent also playing a role in immigration. “His wife was a United States citizen. And if he was sent to Mexico, his life would be in danger. Because the work that her husband did while working from CBP makes her a target for for retaliation; and therefore, it was critical for him to be able to stay here with his wife, so that his wife would not have to move to, not have to go to Mexico to see him and be put in a situation where her life would be in danger.”

While Diez worked on his legal case, Rodriguez looked internally and realized a transformation was taking hold.

“Many things have changed towards my views to this government, my loyalty. It’s not only me. It’s opened my eyes to many other things,” he said.

When he looked around, he found he was not alone.

“There’s thousands of veterans who have been deported. I didn’t even know they had deported veterans,” Rodriguez said.

A community followed that realization.

“Other people start to come into your circle totally opposite to what you had,” he said.

New friends came from hundreds of miles away.

Diane M. Vega from El Paso read about Rodriguez’s situation when his wife shared their story on social media three years ago. She is the chief operations and outreach officer of Repatriate our Patriots, an organization helping veterans avoid deportation.

Vega, who served in the Air Force, was familiar with the feeling of disconnection.

“Anyone that has ever served in the military [will know] you never come back to civilian life. You will never transition back to civilian life,” Vega said.

“I thought it was an oxymoron — being another cog in the huge immigration system, a very broken system,” she said of Rodriguez’s situation. “And his story is one to validate that of how broken our immigration system is in the United States.”

All the knowledge Rodriguez acquired from his job was repurposed when he connected with Vega.

“It’s given me a new look at life,” Rodriguez said.

Unresolved pain invisible to medical practitioners focusing on the body led many to self-medicate, substance abuse and domestic abuse, Rodriguez and Vega said.

“Not all traumatic injuries are physical. Some are mental and emotional,” Vega said. “That drives people to drug abuse, alcoholism and unhealthy behaviors. They end up in the criminal justice system and that’s how so many of them get deported.”

Rodriguez and Vega are critical of the care veterans don’t receive that lead them astray.

“They’re not bad people,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just that they were caught in the same situation I was. And they’re fighting the government as I am.”

The organization also helps by providing legal assistance. Here, Rodriguez finds his experience useful.

“Same job, different focus,” Rodriguez explained. “Instead of trying to kick them out I’m trying to bring them in now.”

In mid-November, Rodriguez went before an immigration judge again. This time, instead of facing roadblocks, he received an apology.

“I think that the judge was telling him by saying that she was really sad to see that sometimes we have cases like this, or recognition that we have cases like these that make absolutely no sense,” Diez recalled.

After years of trimming finances, working through an identity crisis and a strained father-son relationship, Rodriguez emerged with a rare win: he qualified for cancellation of removal.

“In most cases, you don’t get this result,” Diez said. “You will get deported.”

Rodriguez will still need to exercise patience while he waits to become a legal permanent resident and eventually applies to become a naturalized citizen. For now, Rodriguez carries an employment authorization permit and can travel the country, freedom he interprets as an opportunity.

Vega, with Rodriguez’s help, will work toward expanding Repatriate our Patriots in the coming year.

“There’s a lot of stories of individuals who served in the military, served under different names. They were not U.S. citizens, and did it with honors. And still they end up in this process of even though you serve, they are still considered illegal, they are still considered fraudulent enlistments,” Vega said. “So, their service to this country, according to the government, isn’t recognized.”

“My life’s changed,” Rodriguez said. “I was very bitter when I was working for the government. I was upset. I was stressed out. And now that I’m doing this or that I’m trying to do something different, it makes me feel better. My spirit is better.”

(c)2022 The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)

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