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Social Security and immigration services give Iraq vet the runaround

CLEARWATER — Humberto Contreras served at Guantanamo Bay and fought in Iraq, where he survived an IED attack and saw soldiers lose limbs and die.

Now Contreras believes the same federal government that sent him abroad to fight has turned on him. He's been bounced from one agency to another, desperate to get the proof of citizenship he needs to start a job.

As of Friday, he was still in limbo, though after being contacted by the St. Petersburg Times, federal officials promised to get Contreras the documents he needs first thing Monday.

"You see a lot of immigrant workers with fake IDs and Social Security cards," said Contreras, 28, "and it's easier for them to get a job than a U.S. citizen."

Contreras was born in Colombia. His father was then a naturalized American citizen. At age 5, after his mother was murdered in Colombia, he moved to New Jersey, where his father lived.

When he was 18, Contreras was issued a certificate of citizenship, a copy of which he provided to the Times.

He joined the National Guard in 2000, spending a year as a military police officer at Guantanamo. He then joined the active duty ranks of the U.S. Army and did two tours, mostly in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.

"I would like to commend you on remaining calm and doing everything that you were trained to do on the 31st of March when our squad was struck by an IED (improvised explosive device)," a superior's report from 2006 says.

After leaving the Army a year ago, he moved to Orlando with his wife and three children. The Army is paying for his correspondence courses in business administration and giving him a $1,321 a month benefit.

Thanks to the money from Uncle Sam and his wife's job at Wal-Mart, the family had enough to live on for a while. But as savings dipped, Contreras began looking, without success, for work.

Three weeks ago, a fire engulfed the kitchen of Contreras' apartment. Nobody was cooking at the time, and he suspects faulty wiring. Lost in the blaze was Contreras' citizenship papers and Social Security card, which were kept in a drawer.

Thankfully, he had copies in a storage unit.

Things brightened for Contreras recently when he applied online for a job in Clearwater with Amscot Financial. The company called him in for an interview, and he landed a management trainee position at $12 an hour.

Contreras, who is staying in Clearwater with a friend from basic training, thought his worries were over. He would start work, explore the area, save some money and relocate his family.

He needed only one thing: Amscot wanted his original Social Security card to copy for payroll purposes.

Contreras visited Clearwater's Social Security office, hoping to get a replacement, but was told he needed an original or certified citizenship certificate.

"That's the only way that we know that a document is valid," said Frank Viera, a Social Security Administration spokesman. "It's too easy to tamper with copies. There's no way around that."

So he visited the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Tampa. There, he said a woman told him his copies weren't helpful. He needed to pay a $480 fee and mail his paperwork to Texas in order to get proof of citizenship, a process that could take six months to two years.

"I was getting frustrated," he said. "I'm a U.S. citizen. I've paid my taxes every year. They are the ones who can prove I'm a U.S. citizen and they just slammed the door in my face."

Over the course of the last week, his odyssey would take more dead-end turns with the State Department and the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Contreras thought of calling the White House, but tried the newspaper.

Sharon Scheidhauer, a spokeswoman for the immigration service, said perhaps there had been miscommunication between Contreras and workers in the Tampa office. It can take six months to process the paperwork Contreras needs, she said, not as long as two years.

And, she said, the fee is less than $480.

Scheidhauer said though it's not the normal process, given Contreras' military service and financial situation, he'll get his confirmation of citizenship on Monday so long as he provides his copies.

"We definitely want to help him out," she said, "and we understand his frustration."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Social Security and immigration services give Iraq vet the runaround 07/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 5:57pm]
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