'A terrible feeling': Man who deported thousands of people learns he's undocumented

ByCatherine E. Shoichet, CNN, CNNWire
Sunday, February 26, 2023
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Raul Rodriguez says he'll never forget the moment he realized his life was built on a lie.

He was so shaken that he felt the blood rushing to his feet. In a matter of seconds, a family secret had shattered the way he saw the world and his place in it, CNN reported.

"That day will never leave my mind. ... It's a terrible feeling," he says.

It all began 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 soon afterward confirmed what Rodriguez had feared as soon as he saw the paperwork. The US birth certificate he'd used for decades was fraudulent. Rodriguez wasn't a US citizen. He was an undocumented immigrant.

Rodriguez says he had no idea he'd been born in Mexico before his father's confession that day, but he knew immediately how serious the situation was. He'd spent nearly two decades working for the US government at the border.

By his estimates, he'd helped deport thousands of people while working for US Customs and Border Protection and before that, for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Suddenly, he found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, fighting for a chance to stay in the United States.

He lost so much so quickly after that: his job at CBP, his friends in law enforcement, his sense of self. He hasn't seen his father since that day in April 2018 and says he never wants to speak with him again.

But now, nearly five years later, Rodriguez, 54, says he realizes he also gained something surprising after that moment when he learned he wasn't a US citizen.

"It started off as a nightmare," he says. "But then it turned out to be -- holy moly -- this is what I was meant to do."

For Rodriguez, a journey began that day. And it's ended up somewhere he didn't expect.

She heard his story and reached out to help

At first, Diane Vega couldn't believe the words she saw in her Facebook feed.

In her advocacy work helping deported veterans and veterans at risk of deportation as vice president of Repatriate Our Patriots, she'd seen first-hand how cruel and confusing the US immigration system can be. But this was unlike any story she'd heard before -- "somebody who thought they were born here, who was raised here, who served in the military and then who was told, 'you're not American.'"

And how, she wondered, could someone who'd worked for CBP be facing deportation?

Vega, who's based across the state in El Paso, Texas, wasn't the only one surprised by the story of the former immigration inspector who'd learned he was undocumented. Rodriguez's plight caught the attention of local and national media.

Many responses to the coverage were unsympathetic, Vega says, especially in border communities.

"They'd say, 'This is what you get for going against your own people.'"

But Vega saw the story another way.

She'd served in the military. Rodriguez had, too. Before his career working for CBP and its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Rodriguez was in the Navy. He served from 1992 to 1997 and was stationed in Jacksonville and San Diego, with deployments in Iceland and the Persian Gulf as a member of the Navy's military police.

Anyone who's served in the military, Vega says, knows what it's like to have to follow orders and put your personal feelings aside. And to her, Rodriguez's work at CBP was no different.

"It was his job," she says. "Some jobs are not the best, but we all have to follow orders. ... It was always for the defense of this country. It was for the intent of taking care of the United States and its people."

So when others were turning away from Rodriguez, Vega reached out.

In their first phone conversation, she heard how alone he sounded.

"Those that he thought were his brothers turned their back on him," she says.

'He couldn't travel outside his own backyard'

Anita Rodriguez tears up as she recalls those days.

It was devastating, she says, to watch her husband spiral into depression as he lost the support of so many people and institutions he'd counted on.

"There'd be some days when I'd leave the house and wonder, 'Is he going to be OK when we come home? What are we going to find?'" she says, her voice cracking with emotion.

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

Since then, she'd seen him dedicate so many years to his job, and earn high accolades, too. In 2006, officials flew him to Washington to receive an integrity award for his work in a smuggling bust.

The past few years, she says, have brought their family a dramatically different reality.

"He'd been all over the world for the US," she says, "and yet he couldn't travel outside his own backyard. He couldn't go past a (Border Patrol) checkpoint."

Rodriguez knew deportation to Mexico would mean leaving his wife, four children and five grandchildren behind, and leaving home wasn't worth the risk.

As he fought for the chance to stay with his family, people he once considered colleagues became people he feared.

He lost his identity when he lost his job

Rodriguez says years of federal background checks never turned up his Mexican birth certificate. It only came to light when Rodriguez filed a visa application for his brother.

Records show prosecutors declined to pursue a case against Rodriguez after investigators from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General couldn't find any proof that he'd knowingly submitted a fraudulent birth certificate to the government. That meant he wouldn't face criminal charges, but his job was still in jeopardy.

After placing him on leave during the investigation, Rodriguez says CBP fired him in 2019 because he wasn't a US citizen and therefore no longer met the requirements to work as an officer.

In a statement to CNN, CBP said Rodriguez is no longer employed by the agency but declined to comment further on his case.

"All allegations involving CBP employees are handled in a uniform manner in accordance with applicable Department of Homeland Security Policy," the statement said.

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

"Being a Mexican citizen," Rodriguez says, "broke my career and tore it apart."

Rodriguez is no longer working and relies on the disability benefits he receives due to a head injury sustained during his time in the Navy.

He remains proud of the integrity award he won on the job. He still has it on a shelf in his living room. And he keeps a photo of him shaking the CBP commissioner's hand that day on his phone.

But he says many of the friends he thought he'd made during his years at the agency have disappeared.

"They abandoned me because they thought I was illegal," he says.

Gone are the texts and calls that used to keep his phone buzzing. At a local restaurant, he was silently spurned by someone he'd previously invited to dinner at his home.

"He just turns around, puts his head down and doesn't look up as he's going by," Rodriguez says.

It left him feeling lost and betrayed. So many things he'd thought were certain, he says, turned out not to be.

Rodriguez realized he was changing, too.

"Anything that I ever did revolved around law enforcement. I lost everything ... That's who I thought I was. That was my identity," he says. "They take that idea from you, you're back at square one."

He found unexpected allies in a cause he'd never heard of before

Raul and Anita Rodriguez had decades of experience working in the US immigration system, but meeting Vega introduced them to problems they never knew existed.

"We were really surprised. We had never heard of a veteran getting deported," Anita Rodriguez says.

The Biden administration announced a new initiative to help deported veterans in 2021, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stating at the time that officials were "committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled."

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

But it's still unclear exactly how many US military veterans the United States has deported over the years or how many remain abroad.

A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that Immigration and Customs and Enforcement hadn't consistently adhered to its own policies about veterans' cases or tracked how many veterans had been kicked out of the country.

Advocates say more needs to be done to connect deportees with the Biden administration's assistance program and support veterans once they return to the United States.

Vega estimates there could be thousands of veterans who are still out there and aren't getting enough help, between veterans who've been deported and veterans who are in immigration detention fighting their cases.

The Department of Homeland Security says information about resources for returning veterans 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 cases.

Most veterans who've faced deportation were honorably discharged from the military but then later charged with crimes after returning to civilian life.

Rodriguez's case was different; he hadn't been convicted of any crime and hadn't even known he was an immigrant when he joined the military.

But Raul and Anita Rodriguez say that in Vega and other advocates for deported veterans they found the sense of community they'd lost.

"It's just amazing, these people, the love we felt from them -- and acceptance," Anita Rodriguez says. "They made things happen when we were at such a loss. People were willing to help him without ever meeting him."

Raul Rodriguez knew he wanted to pay it forward. He realized his expertise as someone who'd worked inside the immigration system could be valuable for fellow veterans who were trying to return to the US or to become US citizens. The idea of contributing to that cause excited him. And he started volunteering to help Repatriate Our Patriots with other cases that came up.

But he was also reminded of a fear that haunted him: Before long, he could end up becoming a deported veteran, too.

As his day in court approached, she told him, 'you're not alone'

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

She told others in her organization about the case.

They reached out to lawmakers asking for help on his behalf, encouraged 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 ahead for what if he was deported," says Danitza James, Repatriate Our Patriots' executive director.

Advocates feared his past work for CBP would make Rodriguez a target for cartels and other criminal organizations south of the border. They worked to sort out where he might be able to live safely.

And as Rodriguez prepared to head to a key immigration court hearing in November, Vega tried to encourage him.

"Whatever the outcome is, you'll get through it. We'll find a way to appeal it," she told him. "Just don't lose faith. You're not alone."

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

The judge had said she planned to rule in his favor and grant him cancellation of removal -- a key step that would allow Rodriguez to become a legal US resident. But there was still a catch: The law allows only 4,000 of those cases to be approved each year, so once again, Rodriguez would have to wait.

It could be years before he has a document declaring he's in the country legally, and years after that until he's able to become a US citizen.

Every day, Rodriguez checks the immigration court website for more information. And every day, he sees the same word describing his case: "pending."

He knows this is his best shot for staying in the country; a previous application for citizenship through his wife was rejected. For years he says his case has faced unnecessary delays that made him feel like he was being punished even as he tried do the right thing.

"All I was asking was, just treat me like everyone else. I served this country so many years. I think I deserve something -- at least the chance to stay in it," he says.

His November hearing brought him a reprieve, but it's hard for Rodriguez to celebrate. His oldest son, who was born in Mexico, also lost his US citizenship when Rodriguez's Mexican birth certificate was discovered. He's received temporary permission to stay in the United States due to his father's military service, but still struggles to find work and fears being separated from his wife and children. Rodriguez says it's been devastating to watch his son suffer.

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

He knows the emotional and financial costs of living in limbo all too well, even with the prospect of a court decision in his favor on the horizon.

"I'm still limited in what I can do," Rodriguez says. "I still have to look over my shoulder."

But Rodriguez is starting to look toward the future, too.

His deportation fight opened his eyes to things he didn't see before

In his free time these days, Rodriguez is doing what he can to support efforts to bring deported veterans back to the United States and help those who've recently returned find their footing. He also tries to help advocates track down veterans in immigration custody.

"He has changed," Vega says. "There's still some weight on his shoulders, but it's not like before."

After deporting people from the United States for years, Rodriguez says, "now I'm trying to bring them back."

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.

Even though he's had to avoid major travel for years, Rodriguez has been on a different sort of journey.

"I was blind," he says, describing his life before his own immigration ordeal began. "I didn't see what was going on."

He still feels immigration laws should be followed. But he says he now realizes so many people who are trying to do things the right way are stuck.

"I've been on both sides, and I sympathize with them even more now because of what I went through. And now I know what they've gone through," he says. "It's not, 'Once you make it, you're good.' You still have to struggle while you're here."

Above all, Rodriguez says, veterans who fought for the United States shouldn't have to face deportation or suffer in hospitals abroad.

"If (the government) treats its own patriots like this, can you imagine what it will do to its people? It's a disgrace," he says.

The Department of Homeland Security says the government is committed to helping veterans access benefits and services, and helping members of the military become citizens once they're eligible. More than 10,600 members of the military became US citizens last year, a department spokesperson said.

"We are profoundly grateful for the service and sacrifice of military service members, veterans, and their families," the spokesperson said.

But Rodriguez says his experience left him feeling discarded and abandoned by the government he served, and he says he's met other veterans who share similar sentiments.

The situation infuriates him. But sitting at the dinner table in his Texas home -- some 10 miles from the Mexico border -- he smiles as a text message flashes across his screen.

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

"Hello brother. ... We all prayed for your stay [of removal]. Hope you and your family are ok."

After more than a year talking and texting, they're planning to meet up in person soon. It's a reminder of the new friendships Rodriguez has forged, and the new mission he's found.

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