Hispanic Heritage Month: An officer’s path to citizenship

  • Published
  • By Major Joseline Phillips
  • 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The year was 1999. My mother, Teresa Abreu Roche, a Dominican immigrant in New York City, sat anxiously waiting for her citizenship certificate after years of intense background checks, medical exams, an interview and a 100-question test on U.S. history. She did her best to expedite everything so that I could gain derived citizenship that fell under a parent before I became an adult. I was 16 at the time and was also born in Dominican Republic. She received her citizenship certificate with a naturalization number in the corner.
I subsequently received a U.S. passport from the Department of State, which I have used as proof of citizenship for the next 22 years.
In 2009, almost exactly 10 years after my mother became a citizen, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, partially as my “thank you” to the country that gave me so many opportunities. I received all the required security clearances and then a direct commission into the Medical Service Corps just two years later in 2012. While commissioned and in the grade of captain, while preparing to deploy to Qatar in 2020, I was, for the first time ever, asked to provide my naturalization certificate number. After several phone calls back home, my mother gave me her certificate number and reminded me that I fall under her. I submitted that on my application and thought nothing of it.
I was deployed for the second time, this time to Fort Lee, Virginia, as a medical planner in support of Operation Allies Welcome. During that time, my mother sent me a copy of a letter that our old neighbor in New York received, addressed to me from the Department of Homeland Security. The letter explained that I recently used a certificate number that does not belong to me, and that I am currently recognized by DHS as a legal permanent resident -- not a U.S. citizen. I thought it must be a mistake. I thought about the irony as I was helping process Afghan personnel who were going through their visa and residency process.
I decided to speak to a U.S. citizenship and Immigration Services representative. He looked up my information and then explained that while the Department of State recognizes me as a citizen, DHS does not, unless I could provide my own certificate. The representative said that I needed to get this corrected ASAP or it would affect my military benefits and even service. As a commissioned officer, U.S. citizenship is a pre-requisite for commissioned service. He explained that this happens every so often and that it can affect my retirement benefits as well.
I immediately reached back to my home unit to inform them. I began to panic because I simply could not imagine my life without the military. I played it off and made jokes about it, however, I was heartbroken at the thought that my career might be over after 12 honorable years of service. As fate would have it, there was a reservist lawyer that happened to be stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for two weeks of duty who was an immigration attorney. I got permission to come back to my home unit for one day to meet with him, and he helped me file the correct paperwork. Four months later, I was given an appointment to receive my certificate and to put this all behind me. Now, I’d like to spread the word for Airmen who were born in a foreign country and derive their citizenship under a parent. If it was not for deployment requirements, I would not have known about this discrepancy.
Editor’s note: The requirements for being a U.S. Air force officer are more strict as native-born or naturalized United States citizen. For those who wish to enlist as a non-citizen in the Air Force, you must be a legal permanent resident with a valid Green Card. For more information on citizenship requirements, reference 10 U.S. Code § 532 - Qualifications for original appointment as a commissioned officer, and Air Force requirements. Questions concerning immigration to the United States should be asked of the U.S. Embassy.