Martina Peña-Lopez’s time on the Earth has been quite an adventure. Usually, teenagers are the ones trying to find their identity and where they belong in the world. Martina had to find the answer at 10-months old.
“It Was Like Destiny”
Julian Peña, Martina’s father, said as young man he would travel back and forth from Bogota, Colombia to Long Island, N.Y., to visit his brother who was a speech pathologist. During a visit, his brother introduced him to a woman, and in just a moment, Julian knew this chance meeting was much more.
Veronica Lopez was from Manizales, Colombia, and moved to Long Island because of a job offer as a speech pathologist.
Meeting Julian in the “city that never sleeps,” gave way to the perfect situation for the in-love couple to devote their allegiance the country, which opened its “golden doors” and welcomed them in. Six months after getting married, in 2019, Peña joined the U.S. Army as an aircraft electrician moving to Korea, “Land of the Morning Calm.” He said joining was his way of expressing the gratitude he and his family had for the U.S.
Soon after, Peña was assigned to, Company D, 3rd Battalion 2nd General Aviation Support Regiment, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. While Veronica was sad to leave her career in New York, she followed her husband to Korea for their two-year tour.
The couple said they enjoyed their time and life in the country – the scenery, the food, the garrison, and each other.
On March 26, 2022, a beautiful little girl with big brown eyes and a smile so bright she may have blinded the doctors, was born, with the promise of freedom and justice, like all American citizens. Julian, who chose to pledge his allegiance to that very same country when he joined the U.S. Army, extended that promise to little Martina. The only problem – Martina Lopez-Peña was not a citizen.
Even though dad was naturalized in 2019 into the U.S. through his military service, he was still three-months shy of becoming a full citizen at the time Martina was born. Mom lived in the U.S. for eight years, but it was through a work Visa. She only applied for citizenship two-months after Martina’s birth. So, under the law, neither parent met the requirements for Martina to be considered a U.S. citizen.
Many expressed concerns about Martina’s nationality, with some suggesting Martina may be considered Korean by birth. But Julian and Veronica believed she would be an American because she was born on Camp Humphreys.
Julian said when he and his wife took the hospital’s record of birth to the U.S. Embassy, they expected to receive the official birth certificate, but they were unable to attain any documents. They were shocked when the officer at the embassy told them Martina didn’t meet the requirements for U.S. citizenship due to the "five-year policy" under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which states that in order to become a citizen, the individual being naturalized has to spend five-years on American soil.
“We didn’t know,’” said Veronica.
“They told us the four years I been naturalized counts, but it wasn't enough,” said Pena.
In the eyes of the law, neither mom or dad had been a U.S. citizen long enough prior to Martina's birth.
No Birth Certificate Equals More Problems
The Peña’s inability to obtain Martina’s birth certificate began to interfere with other parts of their lives. November was quickly approaching, and the family would soon have to leave Korea and return to the U.S. Julian was not able to add Martina to his amended orders without an official birth certificate. Without her name on his order, Martina would have to stay behind.
“We would both be gone and have to leave our daughter, but with who?” said Julian.
Julian sent up a request to be extended in August of 2022. However, because of system delays, the process took a longer than expected. All the while, the Peñas were anxiously awaiting answers.
“Housing needed proof of our extension, and for a moment, it looked bleak,” said Julian. “Luckly, my commander approved my paperwork for an extension, and I took the paperwork to housing and the Status of Forces Agreement stamp office.”
Weeks later, Julian would discover his request to extend was ultimately denied.
Late-Night Phone Calls
Veronica and Julian spent countless restless nights at home waiting for USCIS in Guam, the closest U.S. territory, so they could talk with representatives to find a resolution to their current circumstances.
“This is not a common case, and no one had any idea of what to do with us,” said Julian. “Every time we called that line, there was a different agent. One night we called six times. We did this just to see if someone would tell us something different. Sure enough, each time a new representative told us something different.”
One representative Julian spoke with recommended the family apply for N600K, Application for Citizenship and Issuance of Certificate Under Section 322, but that comes with a $1,200 fee. Since the Peñas already wasted $300 paying for a birth certificate and passport, which the U.S. Embassy denied, the idea of paying an extra $1,200 was not something they were willing to do without some sort of guarantee.
It seemed the Peñas were running out of options. They turned to U.S. elected officials, but after filling out countless forms, the conversations ran cold.
Veronica said she didn’t understand why Martina couldn’t obtain American citizenship considering the family was sent to Korea on military orders. For nine-months her daughter had no social security number and no real record of her existence.
“We spent a lot of time and emotions on this process,” said Veronica. “We were super concerned of what our future would look like. We asked for Colombian citizenship as well, but the first requirement is a birth-certificate.”
The Peñas tried the Humphreys Judge Advocate General Office who investigated the case, but the uniqueness of the situation made it difficult to find answers. The family even tried hired a California lawyer who was unable to help.
Veronica said it was a long process, consisting of late-night phone calls to USCIS representatives. Each time, they spent 10-to-20 minutes explaining their situation each time. However, the Peñas were determined to find an answer.
“The garrison’s hospital helped us a lot,” said Veronica. “They were able to translate the record of birth to Spanish as one of the requirements of the Colombian embassy. They also translated the record to Korean for us to get the certificate notarized.”
U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys Army Community Service Center was also exceptionally helpful, said Veronica. They acted as the middleman between the U.S. Embassy and the USCIS in Guam.
“We are so grateful, because ACS helped us a lot,” said dad, both parents smiling. “I have a couple of names in mind, namely Mr. Toney Price and Ms. Olivia Bourke, but there were many more. They helped us get in contact with Guam and made possible the impossible. Thanks to them, Martina is naturalized, and we can fly out from Korea.”
After 10 months of an emotional roller coaster, Martina Peña-Lopez found her place as an American citizen. The naturalization ceremony took place in the U.S. Army Garrison Humphrey's Commander's conference room. Col. Seth Graves, commander, USAG Humphreys, and Command Sgt. Maj. Monty Drummond, senior enlisted adviser, along with ACS representatives Heather Macleod and Price joined the Peñas to congratulate Martina on accomplishing a historic milestone, one she likely won't remember but will never forget.
Now the family can continue their American dream together. Julian is heading to Officer Candidate Course while Veronica and Martina will await patiently for his return before moving duty stations.
“I joined the Army to serve my country, and I plan on staying in for 20 years,” said Julian. “One thing about the military is you are never alone, and there will always be someone there to help you no matter your situation. The military is like one huge family. Be patient and keep asking for help. You will eventually find the right person.”