OCALA, Fla. — Coming to America was easy, but the journey to stay here was paved with struggle for Pvt. Angel E. Chavez and his family.
Pvt. Chavez grew up in Panama in the city of La Chorrera and dreamed of coming to the United States some day.
“I would tell my friends in elementary school,” said Chavez. “They used to laugh at me. I would tell them, I am going there one day and I’m going to make it.”
In 2005, Chavez arrived in the United States with his parents and three siblings. They settled in Ocala, Fla., where his father started a business repairing and exporting vehicles to Panama and his mother found a job as a cosmetologist. He and his siblings were doing well in school and were adjusting to their new lives when a big problem arose: their visas expired and their entire family was subject to deportation.
The Chavez family tried every legal avenue to stay in the country. The dishonor of being illegal immigrants wore on the children. By 2008, his mother divorced and remarried a U.S. citizen and shocked the family by disappearing for two years with her new husband.
The children remained positive, progressed in school and their father’s business continued to grow. In 2010, Chavez’ mother came back demanding the children from his father. After an argument one morning, he took a load of vehicles to Port Canaveral, Fla., and was met at the docks by federal agents from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. His mother reported his location and Mr. Chavez was deported.
Chavez had no money, nowhere to live and was forced to live on the streets. He felt that the heart of his family had been ripped out.
“It was absolutely horrible,” Chavez recalled. “My dad wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to. I just didn’t have an option. I dropped out in the middle of my senior year at Belleview High School. I became depressed.”
His brother, Julio, went to live with his mother in Ocala, while Chavez and his youngest brother Anthony moved in with his sister Julissa and her husband Army Staff Sgt. Todd Corona in Clarksville, Tenn. Staff Sgt. Corona serves on active duty and is stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. Shortly after they moved in, Corona took over custody of Pvt. Chavez and his little brother.
Chavez tried to enroll at the local high school but was told he would have to repeat the last year and that many of his credits wouldn’t transfer from Belleview H.S. He made plans to earn his GED and worked two jobs as a manager at Pizza Hut and as a grocery bagger at the Fort Campbell Commissary. That wasn’t enough for this ambitious immigrant.
“Even though I was making good money, I didn’t feel right about not having a high school diploma,” Chavez said. “I didn’t want to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Chavez enrolled in an online high school and thought he would check out his opportunities in the military. When he talked to a recruiter with the Army National Guard, he found out that his online high school was not accredited but he might be eligible to transfer to the National Guard Patriot Academy high school and join the Army National Guard.
“I was like, wow,” Chavez exclaimed. “A high school diploma is what I want!
Chavez passed all his tests, physicals and shipped off to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. While he was there, the drill sergeants in his platoon assisted Chavez with naturalization paperwork for him to become a U.S. citizen. Upon graduation, he reported for the National Guard Patriot Academy in Butlerville, Ind., and his application documents were transferred to Indianapolis.
“I think I annoyed them,” he laughed. “I called them–I kept on calling them like every day. But, they called me back and told me they were going to send me a letter with a date for my ceremony.”
That letter arrived, Sept. 21, 2011 and Pvt. Chavez was ordered to appear before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration field office in Indianapolis on October 21, 2011 to swear in.
“As soon as I walked into the building in my military uniform, everybody there was surprised, looking at me and stuff,” said Chavez. “And I was surprised that I was the only one to become a citizen there that day.”
According to a Nov. 21, 2011, article from Time Magazine entitled “The Other 1 Percent,” approximately 70,000 non-citizens serving the U.S. Armed Forces have become naturalized since Sept. 11, 2001. Expedited citizenship during times of conflict for non-citizens serving in the U.S. Armed Forces was initially authorized by an Executive Order in July, 2002. Now, through Defense Authorization Acts, service members do not currently have to bear the expense of costly processing fees.
A cadre member from the Patriot Academy drove Chavez and his battle buddy Pvt. Raul Martinez to Indianapolis. Martinez completed basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and attended the Patriot Academy with Chavez.
“Your dream came true!” Martinez said as he gave Chavez a hug. “You got it!”
“I didn’t know what to say,” Chavez said about becoming a citizen. “I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to celebrate so much. It’s something that most of my people can’t accomplish everyday. It’s something really great for me.”
Chavez, who is the first in his family to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, called his father in Panama to tell him the news.
“He was crying with joy,” said Chavez. “He said he was proud of me and so was my sister and brothers too.”
Two weeks after becoming a citizen, Chavez completed another milestone in his life, graduating high school. On Nov. 4, 2011, Chavez walked across the stage at the National Guard Patriot Academy with an accredited high school diploma and one semester of college under his belt.
“This is a great opportunity that I’ve had and I thank God everyday,” Chavez added. “I look at my diploma and naturalization certificate everyday. This has been a dream come true for me.”
Chavez spent an early Thanksgiving dinner with his sister, brother and brother-in-law in Clarksville and will spend Thanksgiving with his mother, his brother Julio and his uncle in Ocala, Fla. Despite what has happened in the past, understanding and forgiveness has healed his family, and according to Chavez, the best moments are yet to come.
“When I see my father return to the U.S. legally, that will be a great moment for me,” Chavez said. “I want him here with us.”
He will attend training weekends with the Florida Army National Guard and is scheduled to report to Fort Jackson, S.C. to learn his new job skill as a Light Wheeled Mechanic in February. Once he returns, Chavez will enroll in college and plans to earn his commission through Army ROTC.
“Every time that I was lost, didn’t know what to do, and thinking this was it for me, I just keep on going,” Chavez added. “And no matter what, keep trying hard and never quit.”