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Vietnam vet finds himself caught in immigration limbo

A longtime resident of this country who was an army veteran, taxpayer and voter found out that he is not a citizen
Immigration limbo: Man discovers he isn't a citizen after decades 03:07

Mario Hernandez wanted to take his wife, Bonita, on a cruise but needed a passport. What he found out next changed everything.

After nearly half a century in the U.S., Hernandez was told he's not a U.S. citizen, CBS News' Manuel Bojorquez reports.

"I feel like my heart's been ripped out of my chest, I really do," said Hernandez. "It is difficult even to speak about it, I'm telling you."

"We should be enjoying this time of our life, not living in fear that something bad may happen to him," Bonita Hernandez said.

The problem dates back to 1965, when Hernandez's family fled communist Cuba. He was granted the legal status given to all Cuban immigrants, which included a Social Security card but not immediate citizenship.

In 1975, he believed he'd become a citizen when he was sworn into the Army during the Vietnam War.

"I took the oath there to uphold the law of the Constitution, bear arms," Mario Hernandez said.

For two decades, Hernandez worked as a federal prison guard, a job that requires U.S. citizenship and recurring background checks. Among the criminals he supervised were Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

"It was very high level," Hernandez said.

Bojorquez remarked, "and all the while you're not a U.S. citizen."

"I was always under the impression that I was," Hernandez said.

Hernandez's attorney, Elizabeth Ricci, appealed to immigration officials earlier this year, citing his clean record, history of paying taxes and military service.

"The law says if you served during a designated period of hostility, which Vietnam was, you can jump from not having a status to citizenship without first being a resident," Ricci said.

But in March they were told he was not eligible and denied.

What's going on?

"Inefficiency to the extreme," Ricci said.

In a statement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said: "We are currently reviewing Mr. Hernandez's case and will meet with him and his attorney to further discuss his application."

"I'm living in a bad dream, and it's like I'm hoping I'll wake up," said Hernandez. "But it's not a dream. It's definitely real."

Hernandez hopes he will be allowed to fulfill the American dream he thought he was living.

Hernandez could face prison and fines for falsely claiming citizenship and voting.

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