One soldier's crazy path to citizenship

Matt Saintsing
July 06, 2018 - 6:34 pm

Courtesy of Ivan Lievanos


Ivan Lievanos came to the United States in 1990 when he was just five-years-old, but make no mistake about it, he’s all American.

His parents made the trek from Michoacán state in western Mexico with Ivan, his older brother Luis, sister Marlan, and baby brother Aldolfo, Jr in tow. Like so many other immigrant families, his parents were escaping extreme poverty and wanted a better life for their children.

After graduating high school in 2003, Ivan joined the California National Guard as a humble way to thank the country that provided so much opportunity to him and his family.

“My main reason to join was to give back,” says Lievanos. “I wanted to show my gratitude for just being here in this country.” So he was shocked, sad, and a bit confused when no one in his unit knew how he could become a U.S. citizen.  

Photo Courtesy of Ivan Lievanos

“When I went to look for guidance on my citizenship, no one had a clue,” says Lievanos. “Nobody knew the right process, or documentation and there’s no support for anyone to help us.” Instead of trying to see what was required for Lievanos to become a citizen of a country for which he was willing to die, he says the commander in his unit, 1st Battalion, 185th Infantry Regiment, said it was something his recruiter should have taken care of.

Lievanos says it became clear his lack of U.S. citizenship wasn’t a priority for his unit. They did however, bar him from deploying with his colleagues on a peacekeeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Since he wasn’t a citizen, his leadership said, he couldn’t deploy. Lievanos served on what is known as rear detachment, or “rear d” in military speak, a collection of soldiers who maintain contact with the deployed unit and serves as a conduit between families and those in harm’s way. Since no one knew or sought to find out how Lievanos could become a citizen in time, his unit flew off to Egypt with one less soldier who wanted nothing more than to do his job. For Lievanos, the news was heartbreaking and a “morale breaker.”

“We train for this in the military, to deploy and be ready,” he says. “And the peacekeeping mission was an experience I never had just because no one knew how to file the paperwork.”

He fell through the cracks, which is common for people in the same position as Lievanos . Many immigrant service members join the military thinking their service automatically guarantees them citizenship. That's not the case, and the military never promises citizenship, despite highlighting it in recruitment. 

But what stopped him from serving his country in Sinai, didn’t save him from Iraq. In 2006, his unit deployed to Camp Bucca, just outside Umm Qasar near the Iraq-Kuwait border. He was stunned.

“It was far less dangerous in Egypt, and yet, they had no problem sending me to Iraq,” he adds. Lievanos ended up providing convoy security for detainees between nearby Kuwait and Baghdad, despite being a human resources specialist.

Still, he repeatedly asked how he could become a U.S. citizen to no avail. He had done research before being sent to Iraq, and followed up when he returned in August 2007. Eventually he ended up paying $700 out of his own pocket to become a citizen of the country he served.

When reached for comment, a representative of the California National Guard said they were looking into the matter. 

Photo Courtesy of Ivan Lievanos

Lievanos finished his time in the Guard and was honorably discharged in 2010. Today, he is an architectural student at Bakersfield College in California, and is more grateful than ever to call the United States his home, and stresses that he didn't join just because he was looking for legal status. 

"Most of us immigrant soldiers, we don't join for the sole purpose of becoming U.S. citizens," he says. "We join because we truly just believe we're American and we want to give back for all the opportunities this country gave to us and our families." 

“This is my home, this is all I know,” he adds. “Whether people want to recognize it or not, whether people want to see me as an American or not, I know I’m American.”

“It’s all I know.”