Nick Ortega holds up a photo of his common law wife and two children. A judge decided Ortega is a U.S. citizen. 

(Photo: CPR/Michael de Yoanna)
Nick Ortega was living the American dream: he had a wife, two kids, a good job and a home in Longmont, Colo., with a neatly trimmed lawn. He coached his son’s baseball team and paid his taxes.

Then, in his mid 40s, he was told something that shook him to his core: He wasn't an American citizen. He also was a year older than he thought he was. Such cases are rare, but not unheard of, immigration attorneys say.

Ortega’s troubles began in 2010. He worked as a driver for United Parcel Service, and the company ran his name -- and the names of employees around the country -- through E-verify, the Department of Homeland Security’s online system for determining who is eligible to work in the United States. UPS told Ortega that his Social Security number identified him as being born outside the country.

“I just looked at them and I started laughing,” Ortega says. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’”

It was no joke, and there was no mistake. Ortega, who had a stellar service and driving record over his 10 years with the company, was let go from his $90,000-a-year union job. He says he was forced “into survival mode,” creating his own business in order to pay the bills.

As he feared deportation and wondered if the years of his payments to Social Security would be nullified, Ortega also unraveled the secrets of his past, asking questions of his parents that he never asked before. They told him that he was born in Mexico and had come across the United States border around the age of five with his mother, a Mexican national, and his siblings.

The family had come to Greeley, Colo., to be with Ortega’s father, a U.S. citizen born in Texas who grew up laboring in the farm fields.

Ortega always assumed he was a U.S. citizen through his father, and all his ties are to America. His common-law wife is a multigenerational U.S. citizen. His children are also U.S. citizens. Ortega has never visited Mexico, and while he speaks a little Spanish, he can't read or write in that language.

He says he struggled with feelings of shame after losing his job.

“I kept it a secret because of a lot of the immigration things that’s going on right now,” he says. “People are very angry… I wouldn’t tell nobody. I felt lost. I felt ashamed, you know, that this happened to me.”

Ortega turned to immigration attorney Catherine Chan of the Chan Law Firm for help. She took his case pro bono, arguing that Ortega acquired U.S. citizenship at birth through his father, and had a right to be with his father as a child.

Federal immigration officials demanded documentation to prove that Ortega's father was a U.S. citizen and had resided regularly in the United States in the decade preceding Ortega's birth. It was difficult task, because Ortega's father was often paid in cash for his farm labor.

“It was a needle in a haystack trying to find anything,” Ortega says. But he turned up a handful of documents, including his father’s Texas birth certificate, a record of his father's baptism, an elementary school certificate from 1953 and a tax notice from 1973.

It wasn't enough, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Denver. The office director, Andrew Lambrecht, wrote to Ortega on Dec. 23, 2013, denying his request for citizenship.

“The documents you submitted are insufficient to establish that before your birth, your father, Marcelo Ortega Beltran, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than ten (10) years, at least five (5) of which were after attaining the age of fourteen,” Lambrecht wrote.

Ortega’s attorney, Chan, sued the federal government. "The judge agreed with us," Chan says, and last week, Judge R. Brooke Jackson for the U.S. District Court of Colorado declared Ortega a citizen.

Jackson found that though Ortega’s father left the country periodically to visit Mexico, his father has been a consistent resident of the United States.

“Under any definition, Marcelo was ‘physically present in the United States’ for 10 years before Nicolas’ birth, five of which were after the age of 14,” Jackson wrote.

Ortega says he plans to apply for a U.S. passport. He also let UPS know that he cleared up the matter.

"They said, ‘Come on back’," Ortega says, "and that I would be back on that truck."