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Man who claims he's a U.S. citizen repeatedly has been deported to Mexico. It's complicated

People stand during a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Miami Field Office, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Miami. One hundred forty-two citizenship candidates from 33 countries took the Oath of Allegiance. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee
Naturalization ceremonies like this one are what many immigrants hope to participate in some day. In some cases though, people who have legitimate claims to citizenship have been deported.

Manuel Guerra Vasquez has been deported to Mexico before, but each time he returned to Texas. Even though he was born in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the 61-year-old claims he’s a U.S. citizen.

He and his family live in North Texas and said he had to return because his family depends on him.

“I was desperate to come back because I needed to pay the mortgage,” he said.

Proving he’s entitled to citizenship has been difficult. John Bray, an immigration and criminal defense attorney in Dallas, is helping Guerra Vasquez and several of his family member prove they’re citizens.

That’s because the family’s matriarch Cruz Rodriguez-Vargas Guerra, who died a few years ago, was born in Kansas in 1924, a fact they say was common knowledge in the family.

In fact, when Guerra Vasquez was detained, he told immigration enforcement officers that he believed he was a U.S. citizen because of his grandmother.

“Her parents died when she was a little girl. They orphaned her, so the family sent her to live with her tias — with her aunts — in Guanajuato in the interior of Mexico,” Bray said.

Vargas Guerra lived in Mexico for several years before attempting to return to the U.S. in 1940. When she arrived at the border, she explained she’d been born in the U.S., that her uncle, father and brothers were U.S. service members and that some of them had fought in both world wars. But she wasn’t allowed in the country.

Bray says this isn’t at all unusual.

“There are thousands of people who are U.S. citizens and don’t even realize it and it really does require a thorough investigation of the factual circumstances and the family circumstances for each person,” he said.

Denise Gilman, who works at the immigration clinic at the University of Texas in Austin, said these cases are likely more common among families who live along the border, such as migrant farmworkers who routinely traveled back and forth between the two countries.

“So you might have somebody who obtained their U.S. citizenship and then still went back and forth to Mexico and actually often had children in Mexico because that’s where extended family lived,” Gilman said. “That’s where health care was in some ways more readily accessible.”

Gilman said whether someone qualifies for U.S. citizenship depends on when that person was born and what was written in law then because the law has changed numerous times.

“Overall, the general rule is that if a parent is a United States citizen at the time that a child is born outside of the United States, that child may become a citizen if the parent lived enough years in the United States according to the relevant provision of law for that time period,” she said.

The parent also has to prove there’s been a sufficient enough relationship with the child. There are also provisions about whether the parents is married or a child is born outside of marriage. The grandparents’ status could also play a factor. It can get complicated and confusing.

The issue caught the attention of the Government Accountability Office in 2021 when it issued a report. In its findings, the GAO reported that as many as 70 U.S. citizens had been deported over the previous 5 years.

“We found that ICE's policy requires its officers to interview individuals claiming U.S. citizenship in the presence of or in consultation with a supervisor,” said Rebecca Gambler with the GAO. “But the training that its officers receive on that topic doesn't specify that.”

Gambler said the second issue found was that ICE officials were updating the citizenship field in its records so ICE couldn’t really track those cases.

Since then, she says, ICE has updated its training materials to reflect its policies. The second issue, however, remains unresolved.

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.