COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Like millions of voters across the country, Manuel Valenzuela, of Colorado Springs, is planning on casting a ballot in Tuesday’s election.
But unlike most voters, Manuel may face voter fraud charges if he votes because of an ongoing dispute regarding his status as a U.S. citizen.
“We’ve been here since 1955,” said Manuel, who was born in Mexico, to a U.S.-born mother, and moved across the border with his mom and his older brother, Valente, when he was a young boy.
When they became of age, both brothers enrolled in the military -- Manuel entered the Marines, while Valente joined the Army.
“I [was] assigned to the 101st Airborne, in Huey, near the DMZ. No man’s land,” said Valente, who received a Bronze Star for his service.
Forty years after being honorably discharged, the brothers received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security, challenging their citizenship and notifying them to appear in court for deportation proceedings.
“I shed blood for this country,” said Valente. “I went through hell and with the grace of God, I came back … Now, there is no explanation as to why I’m being removed from this country.”
After three years of court appearances, the Department of Homeland Security administratively dropped their case against Valente and Manuel, though issues with their status as U.S. citizens continued when Manuel registered to vote.
A few weeks after registering, Manuel received a letter from the office of Scott Gessler, the Colorado Secretary of State, saying that his right to vote was being challenged because the Department of Homeland Security flagged him as an undocumented immigrant.
After receiving the letter, Manuel took his documents, including his mother’s birth certificate, to the El Paso County Clerk’s Office. There, Manuel says an official reviewed his case and declared that his claim to citizenship was valid -- even giving him a ballot.
“Welcome home, you’re an American citizen,” Manuel says he was told.
However, when we contacted the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office about Manuel’s situation, they said his vote would be invalid, because he is considered a non-citizen, and offered this statement:
“Only the federal government can grant citizenship and without that, any ineligible voter who casts a ballot may be convicted of a felony.”
We also reached out to the El Paso County Clerk's Office, but they declined to comment on Manuel’s situation.
“The state of Colorado was told that I’m not an American citizen, that I don’t have the right, well, lookey here,” Manuel said, pointing to the ballot he was given by the El Paso County Clerk’s Office.
We contacted Jeff Joseph, an expert immigration lawyer, to examine Manuel’s case. He told us Manuel may have an automatic claim to citizenship.
“The government actually closed his case,” said Joseph. “One way to read that is that the government agreed that they couldn't meet their burden of proof and so they decided not to prosecute the case.”
Joseph explained that if the Valenzuela brothers’ mom lived in the U.S. for 10 years, at least five of which were after turning 16, “they are automatically citizens as a matter of law.”
“The right pre-exists the fact that you have proof of it,” said Joseph. “I, as a United States citizen, don’t have to carry around my passport because I’m a citizen, and the fact is I’m a citizen whether I have a passport or not.”
We also reached out to the office of Doug Lamborn, the Congressman who represents Colorado’s 5th District, where the brothers live.
A spokesperson told us they would love to help the brothers get proof of their citizenship, though they would be unable to confirm or deny Manuel’s voting status before the election. The spokesperson actually recommended that Manuel not vote, because it could hurt his chances of proving his citizenship.
We passed the information on to Manuel, who was happy the hear the Congressman’s office was willing to help, but will not take the advice -- saying he is determined to vote because “no one can deny me my rights as a citizen.”