NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. - A WINK News investigation uncovered veterans shocked to learn they're not really Americans! We started working on this story more than two months ago and discovered this problem isn't isolated to the two people who contacted us. With stricter traveling guidelines in place, more and more people are going to get their passports and are finding out, they're not U.S. Citizens after all.
"I'm an American citizen, period," Leo Faraglia proudly told WINK. "I'm Italian born. I was born in Italy, but that's as far as it goes."
Arriving with his parents and sister on Ellis Island when he was eight, Leo settled into American life. It was all "by the book" and perfectly legal.
"I received my social security card at the age of 14," he remembered.
His father became a naturalized citizen when Leo was a teen. His mother, became naturalized years later.
Right after high school, Leo signed up for the military to fight in the Vietnam War.
"The war was going on and I wanted to do my part... I think I was doing my duty. My country was at war," he explained.
After his service in the Navy, Leo worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Pittsburgh for 36 years. He's been married to his American wife, Marie, for 46 years. They've raised three kids together, two of them served in the Gulf War.
"Then two years ago, the bomb came down," he recalled.
Leo found out he wasn't a legal resident. He went straight to his Congressman's office for help.
"That was a shock a real shock. I looked at him totally and I said wait a minute, I've served in the military, I was a federal employee for 36 years, and now you're telling me that I could be deported?" he recalled of the conversation.
Our investigation found out, Leo's not alone. Former Fort Myers resident, Mark Bohlander, faces similar challenges when it comes to staying in the country he calls home. He arrived in the U.S. from Germany when he was nine, after his mother married a U.S. citizen.
"When I applied for jobs and everything, I just assumed I was a United States citizen," Mark explained.
Like Leo, Mark got his social security card when he was a teen and as soon as he was done with high school, joined the army.
"I went into the service to defend the country. I missed Vietnam, but right after high school I went into the service. I figured that was my duty," he explained.
Mark worked steadily in the U.S. until 2010, when he became disabled and applied for social security disability.
"Then all the questions started popping up. Where's your birth certificate? Well, I was born in my grandmother's house," he said.
Mark, just like Leo, found out he wasn't a legal citizen. Because of that, he can't get any of that money he paid into the social security system over all these years.
"They told me that I had to be a naturalized citizen or get a PRC card, which is a Permanent Resident Card. And until then, I wouldn't get any, I wouldn't qualify for anything," Mark recalled.
With no income coming in, Mark fell on hard times and became homeless. The VA stepped in to help.
"I haven't had a check in two years. Sometimes I wonder how I've lived and survived. But the VA puts a roof over my head and makes sure I eat and makes sure I go to my doctors appointments," Mark explained.
"We do see people in that situation, periodically," said Sharon Scheidhauer with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. "We are more than happy to help them sort through and see where things stand and help them understand potential applications that they may need to file."
For Mark, his situation is uncertain.
"I took an oath when I went into the service to protect and defend the united states," he told us.
And Mark doesn't know what his future holds. His temporary residency card is about to expire and his most recent attempt to apply for permanent residency was rejected. He's trying to re-submit the necessary paperwork.
For Leo, the future looks better.
"It looks like the citizenship is on its way," Leo told us when we recently met up with him outside the Fort Myers USCIS office.
When we started making phone calls on behalf of the Faraglia's, they say doors started opening up for them.
"It was great. I'm happy about it. I can't thank you enough. It's a good day today," said Leo after learning that he should get his citizenship within eight weeks.
We will be keeping in touch with both Leo and Mark, and the federal government, and will bring you updates on their legal status.
Both of these men thought they were legal because they had social security cards and were able to sign up for the military. Before 1970, there were no real or consistent background checks on social security card applications. Now it's harder and requires proof that you're eligible. But you can see how, especially in the "war years," young men and women who were anxious to sign up for everything and help the war effort, could end up in the situation these men did.