He’s a lifelong American, a guy who went to war for his country, and it doesn’t seem like he is asking so very much.
Ermilo Cano would like to travel before he’s too old to see the world. He’d like to visit his older sister in Mexico.
But Cano is a prisoner of sorts. His jailer: the United States of America.
“I can’t go anywhere,” he told me. “I’m going to be 72 in July. It just breaks my heart.”
For 11 years, Cano has been trying to get a passport. It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s a decorated Vietnam War veteran or a man who has worked all his life and never gotten into a lick of trouble. It doesn’t matter even that he has a Texas birth certificate.
That’s not good enough for the U.S. State Department, which has repeatedly rejected his passport application.
A staffer in Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s office is now in year three of her quest to help Cano.
“He enlisted in the Navy, was honorably discharged, has numerous medals from the Vietnam War, enlisted in the reserves and yet the requirements for a passport are so narrow that he doesn’t fit those requirements,” Kirkpatrick told me. “This guy is a U.S. citizen. He deserves to get a passport.”
A spokesman for the State Department didn’t return a call.
According to Cano’s birth certificate, he was born in July 1944 in Lyford, Texas. His father, Yldefonso Cano, was a farm worker. His mother, Adelaida Rojos, was a housewife.
He was born at home and it never would have occurred to his parents, he says, to go into town to register his birth. Instead, his mother logged it in the family Bible.
When he was six, he needed a birth certificate to go to school so his father went down to the Willacy County courthouse, armed with 50 cents and an affidavit from the midwife who delivered him.
The state of Texas issued him a birth certificate in February 1951.
It was good enough to get him into the U.S. Navy. Cano enlisted in 1963 and served for six years, much of it aboard the USS Oriskany during the Vietnam War. Cano was there in 1966,when a magnesium flare was accidentally ignited, killing 44 men. Cano was on the crew fighting that fire deep in the bowels of the carrier.
He left the Navy in 1969 with a fistful of military hardware, including a Bronze Star.
Cano, whose family moved to Arizona when he was nine years old, worked on Bruce Babbitt’s presidential campaign in 1988, served on a couple of city and state commissions and served as the 2014 grand marshal of Casa Grande’s Veteran’s Day parade. He worked for decades as a sales manager for a food distribution company in Phoenix. At 71, he’s working still, handling sales for a local Mexican foods company.
He gets Social Security. He just can’t get a passport.
“You were not born in a medical facility, so you will need to submit a combination of additional documents to further support your claim to United States citizenship,” says a 2010 letter from the Western Passport Center.
It seems the U.S. government is suspicious of his delayed birth certificate and so is seeking other documents to prove he really was born here, things like his parents’ border crossing cards or medical records from his first year or a baptismal certificate. Cano says he was told by a passport worker that Texas birth certificates from the 1940s were sometimes fraudulent.
“I said they didn’t stop me in 1963 when I gave them my birth certificate to go overseas, to go to Vietnam. You know what the lady said? She said, ‘Well, at that time they were taking just anyone.’ ”
Cano says he believes his parents crossed the border in 1939 but he has nothing to prove they were here before his birth. His dad was paid in cash and farmworkers’ kids weren’t taken to the doctor for well checks and such. The family was Baptist but his church – and any records – are long gone, he says.
As is his chance to travel abroad, it seems.
He says he’s spent more than $8,000 in his quest for a passport, even traveling to Texas to scour the place for other records that might prove that he was born here. He has submitted an affidavit from a woman whose mother assisted with his birth and who remembers him as a baby. But that, too, is apparently suspect in the eyes of the U.S. government.
“I fought for this country,” he said. “I almost died. I was trapped for over 10 hours (during the USS Oriskany fire) and I fought for this country and I can’t get a passport? It’s just sad. It’s sad and it’s very sad.”