Former Marine earns citizenship
By Shelley Smith
Last month, Arbe and Ann Arbelaez received what they hope will be their last letter from the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs.
It was the letter they had been waiting on for nearly four years.
The March 25 letter was to make up for the five cordless phones that broke after being tossed across the house in frustration. A letter that would recognize Arbelaez’ five years of service in the Marine Corps. And a letter that would somewhat signify 29 years of paying taxes, a marriage and years of voting in local, state and national elections.
Arbe, who turns 45 on Friday, learned he had been approved for citizenship, and he was to be sworn in the following Wednesday.
Arbe, who lives in Salisbury, was in Fargo, N.D., visiting his son when his wife opened the letter. After reading it four times, she called Arbelaez.
“When she told me I nearly jumped out of my shoes,” Arbe said. “I was hollering, saying, ‘I’m a somebody, I’m an American!’ ”
Arbe was sworn-in Wednesday with 104 other people from 49 different countries.
He was given a packet containing an American flag, a pocket Constitution and several other papers.
And one application in the packet was the very reason he got to where he was last Wednesday — his infamous passport application.
Cabo San Lucas
Musician Sammy Hagar owns a bar in the Mexican resort town of Cabo San Lucas, and he visits every October to celebrate his birthday.
The Arbelaezes were planning on joining the celebration in 2007, and they sent off their passport applications several months before they were to take their first trip out of the country together after 17 years of marriage.
But Arbe’s passport request was stopped in Washington, D.C.
He wasn’t a citizen.
Arbe’s mother, father, older brother and sister, moved to the United States 45 years ago, when Arbe was 6 months old. His father neglected to list on his citizenship form that he had children.
“I was heartbroken,” Arbe said. “The dam burst, literally.”
For about a year he and his wife made calls to simply figure out what their first step needed to be.
“In the beginning I sounded like a broken record,” Ann said. “I would tell them, ‘He’s a military veteran, served honorably in the Marine Corps. He’s out and receiving disability through the VA.’
“They would tell me, well, you need to talk to this person, and then to another person, tell me I need this form, and then tell me nevermind, you need this one. Then I’d make a couple more phone calls and they’d say you need these certificates.”
The Arbelaez’ had to call Arbe’s birthplace of Cali, Colombia, to get a copy of his birth certificate, and then they dealt with the Colombian consulate in New York City.
“People were rude at the consulate,” Ann said.
“They don’t care one bit if it doesn’t benefit them,” Arbe said of the consulate and several government agencies.
“They would fax me a letter, but I couldn’t fax it back to them, I had to mail it back to them,” Ann said. “It was all just hurry up and wait.”
Their marriage certificate had to be sent through certified mail, and had to be a certified copy. Arbe’s school records had to be found in New Jersey and sent to immigration. His parent’s marriage certficate and divorce decree had to be found and sent.
“They kept dangling the carrot, and they’d say, wait, you need something else,” Arbe said.
So they finally got everything together, sent it in, and the passport application was stopped again.
Arbe said a woman in the immigration office in Washington, D.C., whose name, was “Patience,” blocked his paperwork for eight months.
“She was constantly on leave,” he said. “She was probably working one day a week.”
“As far as we know she still has (the application),” Ann said.
With the paperwork finally in to immigration, the Arbelaez waited. And waited. And waited some more.
They finally decided to contact Elizabeth Dole’s office for help. But Arbe said his request fell through the cracks.
And in October, Arbe faced the biggest hurdle yet. He was threatened with criminal charges and deportation for voting.
“The immigration office in Charlotte said I had committed a felony for voting, and I could be deported,” Arbe said.
Arbe had to visit the Rowan County Board of Elections office and withdraw himself from voter registration, then fill out a form stating when and where he voted, and explain why he voted though he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
“At the time I assumed I was a U.S. citizen,” Arbe said.
He was told by immigration officials in Charlotte that the voting form was to go before a panel that would vote on whether or not to grant him citizenship, or have him charged and deported.
“It took me three hours to get back from Charlotte because I had to pull over because I was devastated,” he said.
In late December, the office of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., stepped in, sending him a letter to let him know staff members were following his paperwork and were in contact with the immigration department. Arbe believes the inquiries from Burr’s office sped up the process.
Burr and an employee from his Winston-Salem office, Rene Collins, were guided by Arbe and Ann, and also by Rodney Cress an advocate for veterans.
“Without Rodney Cress and Senator Burr’s office, we’d probably still be a year or two away,” Arbe said. “Rodney let me just rip his ears off. He was my sounding board. And he still took it with a smile and gave me some great advice, and he’s become a very dear friend of mine.”
Arbe isn’t alone
Arbe had all three qualifications to become a U.S. citizen: He’s been married to an American for 17 years; he served in the U.S. military; and he’s been a resident of the U.S. for more than five years without leaving the country.
He was given a Social Security card, he registered to vote when he was in the military, he’s been paying taxes, and he even received unemployment payments.
“So somebody wasn’t doing their job,” Ann said.
When Arbe found out he wasn’t a citizen, he says he was “heartbroken.”
“That was a slap in the face for me,” he said. “Because since we started this, I was literally a man without a country. I didn’t know if I belonged.
“I was stuck in limbo for so long, I went into a depression.”
Arbe said that he hopes his story will be a lesson for veterans across the country, and already has made the process easier for his older brother, who is also not a citizen but served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“With what we had to go through it’s going to make it easier for someone else,” he said. “I know there are several veterans that I served with … they have no clue.
“It’s a crying shame that we had to go through such heartache to get to the point where we are now… I feel like Mr. Bojangles because I’ve been tap dancing a lot.”
On Wednesday, Arbe, Ann and Rodney Cress embraced each other after the citizenship ceremony was over. Arbe and Ann called the experience “surreal.”
“It was the landslide we were looking for, it was just slow and the last week it really picked up,” Arbe said. “This is a good day.”
Cress said the outcome was “well worth the effort,” and called Arbe an “exceptional citizen.”
“Arbe has served his community and the Marines extremely well by setting the example of leadership and volunteerism,” Cress said. “He should have been made a citizen years ago after serving faithfully in the Marines but unfortunately he got caught up in government red tape.”
Arbe returned to Salisbury after the ceremony and headed straight for the board of elections to register anew as an American voter. And surprisingly he almost forgot to fill in the most important box — “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
Staff pointed out the oversight and he fixed it.
“I’m legal,” he said.
The former Marine remains active in several community and veteran groups:
• Department Senior Vice Commandant of the N.C. Marine Corps League
• Rowan County coordinator for Toys for Tots
• Charter member of the General Alan Hal Turnage Detachment 1096 in Salisbury.
• One of five Marine Corps veterans in Rowan County to represent the Marines of Rowan in the N.C. Veteran’s Park in Fayetteville, which is set to open on July 4.
His hand will be cast in concrete to form a column representing veterans from Rowan County.
• Received several awards as a corporal in the Marine Corps, where he trained with NATO military units in 17 different countries for his five years of service.
Reported Shelley Smith can be contacted at 704-797-4246.