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He worked as a U.S. immigration agent for 18 years — as an undocumented immigrant

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So here's a true story that sounds like bad fiction. Imagine a U.S. immigration agent who was born in a foreign country and, it turns out, is actually undocumented. In spite of serving his country for nearly 25 years, first as a sailor and then as a federal officer, he is suddenly deportable. This is what happened to an agent in South Texas who told his story to NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: More than a million foreign-born people are living in the United States, waiting to convince an immigration judge to let them stay here legally. But none has the profile of Raul Rodriguez. His nightmare started one day in 2018 when he was on the job at a Customs and Border Protection station in South Texas. Two managers came up and told him to surrender his gun and his badge. They had discovered that he was an undocumented immigrant - the same type of person he'd been ejecting for 18 years as a federal immigration agent. They'd found out that he actually had a Mexican birth certificate and had been falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen all along.

RAUL RODRIGUEZ: So I thought I was doing all the U.S. citizen things - joining the military, voting, serving in a jury. So I did all those things, and now I'm being penalized for that.

BURNETT: The 53-year-old Rodriguez says he never knew that he was born on a ranch near Matamoros, Mexico. It wasn't until he confronted his father a couple of years ago, trying to prove to the government that he was born in the U.S., that he learned his family took him across the border as an infant and paid a midwife to falsify a birth certificate so that he could live and go to school in Texas. Rodriguez says when he was ousted by CBP, he lost all of his friends and colleagues.

RODRIGUEZ: They see me now, and they just kind of act like they don't see me. Or I could be standing right in front of them, and they just look away and turn their backs.

BURNETT: Raul Rodriguez wore the blue uniform of a bridge agent, and he was a good one. He once received a commendation for undercover work he did to crack a human smuggling ring.

JAIME DIEZ: If a person like that has to go through that hell, what kind of system do we have?

BURNETT: That's his Brownsville attorney, Jaime Diez. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services turned down Rodriguez's petition for citizenship or for a green card. The office said he lied about being an American, and it didn't matter that he never knew that he was not a citizen. The Homeland Security Department has declined to comment on his case, saying it's a personnel matter.

DIEZ: Because immigration has taken the position of saying that a false claim is forever, from that day on, they have made his life miserable.

BURNETT: Rodriguez cannot travel north of the Border Patrol checkpoint, which means he cannot leave the Rio Grande Valley or apply for a job. So he spends his days on his little ranch outside the town of San Benito, tending to his cows, sheep and chickens, occasionally working on a souped-up Ford Mustang. He lives with his wife, Anita, who ironically works for the same immigration office that refused to legalize him. They have two children together. He tries not to think what would happen if he loses his case and is deported.

RODRIGUEZ: I have too many enemies in Mexico. I've done undercover work with the cartels - many deportations, many asylum cases, many visa cancellations.

BURNETT: Rodriguez's unusual deportation case has received wide attention in the Rio Grande Valley. On the one hand, these federal jobs are highly sought after. On the other, the agents can be harshly criticized. And it's exceedingly rare when one of the nation's gatekeepers suddenly becomes an unauthorized immigrant himself. Rodriguez has seen the comments on social media.

RODRIGUEZ: They curse at me. They use the F-word and tell me that I'm getting what I deserve for what I did for my - to my people and stuff like that. And my response would be I was doing a job that I was getting paid for.

BURNETT: The immigration court system is so backed up, Raul Rodriguez will have lived in limbo for nearly five years when he finally gets to tell his story to an immigration judge next September.

John Burnett, NPR News, San Benito, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.