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Florida veteran fights for citizenship, claims US recruited him into military under false promises

Foreigners who serve in the US military are eligible for expedited naturalization process.
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Posted at 4:24 PM, Jul 08, 2024

OCALA, Fla. — On the day we met Paul Canton at his home near Ocala, he was headed to work at a nearby ranch.

But instead of driving his late wife’s van parked in the driveway, Canton called a neighbor to give him a ride.

It’s what he does each day.

“I have somebody who gives me a ride to work, and then I get a ride home. Once we get a ride home, here I am,” he said.

Canton can’t drive because he doesn’t have a valid driver's license or an ID card— and can’t get either one because he’s not a legal U.S. citizen.

“I kind of feel like I’m under house arrest. I can't go anywhere or do anything. There's a lot of restrictions with no identification. I can't even go cash a check,” he told us during our visit.
 
What got our attention about Canton’s citizenship issues is that he’s also a U.S. military veteran.

That’s right, Canton, who was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, isn’t American, but he’s got all the goods to show he served as an American soldier in the U.S. Marine Reserves.

Canton said it was during recruitment when a military recruiter told him if he served, he would be granted U.S. citizenship when he got out.

“I was told if I got an honorable discharge then I would get citizenship at the end of my tour automatically. I got out and assumed I had citizenship and so I did everything a citizen would do,” he said.

Canton got married here, had kids, paid his taxes, and even voted in American elections. That was until a trip to his local DMV to renew his driver's license a few years ago literally stopped him in his American tracks.

“It was kind of a shock,” he said. “I figured somehow, somebody had forgot to push a button or do something. I didn't think it was going to be anything. I just thought here's my paperwork, here's my military service and it was going to be done,” he said.

It wasn’t done, and five years later, it still isn’t.

“It seems like every time we go back and try and deal with this, it’s just another door closed,” he said.

According to federal immigration law, foreigners who serve in the U.S. military are eligible for expedited naturalization if they served during what’s known as a period of hostility.

Canton enlisted during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, but he wasn’t called for active duty for another seven months. By the time he became active, that period of hostility had ended two weeks prior.

According to his attorney, US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) is denying Canton legal status because he wasn’t technically on active duty until after the period of hostility ended, something Canton had no control over.

“He served our country. This is not fair,” explains immigration attorney Elizabeth Ricci. Ricci is representing Canton pro bono and said what happened to Canton during recruitment isn’t all that unusual for immigrant veterans.

“They are told by recruiters, who get a bonus for the number of recruits they sign up, that they will take care of it. We'll get your citizenship, don't worry about it,” she said.

After being denied multiple times by USCIS, including on appeal, Ricci and Canton filed a case in federal court last year. Canton still hasn’t had his first hearing.

But the notion of America recruiting foreigners into its military under false promises isn’t new, said Rose Carmen Goldberg, Director of the Veterans Law Practicum at UC Berkeley School of Law.

“Unfortunately, it is not new it has been going on for many years,” Goldberg said.

Earlier this year, her group released a report titled Broken Promises. It details America’s history of recruiting immigrants to serve our country only to abandon them after service.

“This problem is so big that the federal government itself doesn't even know the scope of the problem,” she explained.

When asked how many foreign veterans could be dealing with citizenship issues similar to Canton’s, Goldberg answered, “rough estimate is hundreds or thousands. No one knows,” she said.

In an email, a spokesperson from the Department of Defense said it “does not sanction bringing immigrants into the US military under false promises of obtaining citizenship.”

The statement goes on to state while non-citizens who enlist under the law are qualified for expedited naturalization, those pursuits are “between the individual and US Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

“It just doesn't make any sense at all,” said Canton who doesn’t know what his future in America holds.

After he joined the U.S. military, he lost his citizenship in Australia, essentially leaving the father of two and recent widow stateless.

When asked why he keeps fighting so hard, Canton said, “I've got nowhere else to go and someone has to take care of my boys.”

Read the full statement from the U.S. Department of Defense:

“The Department of Defense does not sanction bringing immigrants into the US Military under false promises of obtaining citizenship.  In accordance with the law (10 USC 504(b)) and Department policy (DoD Instruction 1304.26 (Qualification Standards for Enlistment, Appointment, and Induction)), to be eligible to enlist in the US military, an individual must be either a US Citizen, a US National, a Lawful Permanent Resident, or from a nation that has entered into a Compact of Free Association with the US (Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau).  Additionally, the law (Section 1440 of Title 8, U.S. Code), offers an expedited path to citizenship for Service members during a presidentially designated period of hostilities.  By Executive Order 13269, dated July 3, 2002, the President designated the period of war against terrorists of global reach beginning September 11, 2001, as a period of hostility.  This Executive Order remains in effect today.  As such, non-citizens who qualify for enlistment under the law (10 USC 504(b)) are qualified for expedited naturalization via their honorable military service.  However, citizenship is an individual pursuit between the individual and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIC).  The Department of Defense is required to certify Honorable Service, via USCIS form N-426, which the applicant submits with their naturalization paperwork.  An individual must apply for naturalization and meet all requirements as set forth by USCIS in order to receive citizenship.  The Department recruits and accesses thousands of non-citizens each year and has a tremendous partnership with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and continues to work with our non-citizen Service members in order to aid, where applicable, their pursuit of naturalization.”

Full response from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services:

As a matter of practice, and due to privacy considerations, USCIS does not comment on individual immigration cases, and the agency cannot share, confirm, or deny immigration information about specific individuals. 

USCIS recognizes the important sacrifices made by service members, veterans, enlistees, and their families. And, while USCIS cannot comment on individual cases, the agency is committed to properly adjudicating applications; increasing access to eligible immigration benefits; and providing members of the military with a range of customer-service resources to help them navigate the nation's legal immigration system. 

USCIS has devoted a section of the agency’s website [uscis.gov] to providing immigration information, including eligibility requirements for naturalization, and other resources to military members seeking services. The agency has established a Military Help Line [uscis.gov]to exclusively assist service members, military families and veterans with immigration-related queries. And USCIS will continue to promote policies and procedures to make improvements that assist military members and their family.

USCIS reviews every veteran's situation on a case-by-case base and make adjudication decisions according to the law and applicable policy. Applicants receive a written decision, which fully explains the agency’s action and lists any appeal rights. 

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