Photo: Neil Rambana
Rude awakening: Many foreign-born veterans think military service confers citizenship
Axel Runtschke had served in both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Reserves, but when the 32-year-old Panhandle resident walked into Elizabeth Ricci’s Tallahassee law office in 2010, he was living under the threat of deportation.
Born in Germany, Runtschke moved to the United States as a child with his mother, who later married an American citizen. This made him a conditional U. S. resident but didn’t confer citizenship. At 17, Runtschke enlisted, serving three years in the Army and five years in the Army reserves. He mistakenly believed his service would make him a U.S. citizen and that the military would take care of the paperwork.
More than a decade after he left the military, Runtschke, by then married and the father of three, lost his wallet and applied for a Social Security card. “They told him that not only are you not a citizen, you are no longer a conditional resident and you have no status whatsoever,” Ricci says. “We thought this was completely unfair — and unbelievable.”
Working with Neil Rambana, her law partner and husband, Ricci filed the paperwork that allowed Runtschke to become a U.S. citizen. As a result of the case, which got a lot of publicity, she frequently gets calls from other foreign-born vets who discover they have the same problem.
“It snowballed,” she says.
Ricci’s firm can’t accept every case, but she has worked pro bono to help 10 other foreign-born vets who assumed they already were U.S. citizens to gain official citizenship.
Mario Hernandez, for example, arrived in the U. S. in 1965 on a “freedom flight” from Cuba when he was 9 years old. When he enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam War, Hernandez remembers taking an oath and thinking that it meant he was a U. S. citizen.
After leaving the Army, Hernandez worked for a time at the U.S. Department of Justice. His career included transporting high-security prisoners, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, McVeigh’s accomplice.
Hernandez found out he wasn’t a citizen when when he was gathering paperwork to get a passport that he needed to go on a cruise to celebrate his retirement. After months of dealings with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials, Hernandez was granted citizenship.
The lesson, says Ricci, is that foreign-born soldiers need to confirm that they are indeed citizens. “You need either a certificate of naturalization or a U.S. passport. They need to understand that service alone does not confer an immigration benefit. If I’ve had 10 of these cases, and I’m one person in a relatively small city, how many of these cases are there in Florida? How many of these cases are there in the United States? There are 640,000 foreignborn veterans alive today. How many of them mistakenly believe their service made them citizens? I venture to say a few thousand.”