identity crisis unveiled

I stumbled upon this profile of former Milwaukee police officer turned outed undocumented alien Oscar Ayala-Cornejo in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today. Months ago when this story broke, Ayala-Cornejo was reportedly not interested in talking to anyone in the media. I had actually attempted to contact his family, hoping to write a profile that would shed light on the larger situation of someone in his shoes – meaning, brought to the U.S. as a child with few ties to Mexico and few legal options in the U.S., but nothing came of it.

Anyway, I think this is a very good profile, so no complaints. I’m sure the JS will get a bucket of hate mail about it, but I’m glad they ran such a sympathetic story on him:

Ex-officer wants new start
by Bill Glauber

It was a name he put on like a new suit of clothes, a name that gave him a new identity, a chance to succeed as an illegal immigrant in America.

But Oscar Ayala-Cornejo could never have imagined the long-term consequences of taking the name of his dead cousin, Jose Morales, and claiming his birth certificate, Social Security number, even a childhood immunization record.

He was just a teenager when it happened in 1999, a kid taking direction from his a father, a kid who dreamed of being a cop on the beat in his Milwaukee neighborhood.

“Once I became Jose Morales, there was no turning back,” he said.

Now, the ex-patrolman with the Milwaukee Police Department is a felon awaiting sentencing Monday in federal court. In August, he pleaded guilty to falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen. He could be headed to prison or put on probation. But in the end, he’ll be going back to his home country, Mexico.

Wednesday, at his mother’s home in Milwaukee, Ayala-Cornejo sat for a 75-minute interview. The 25-year-old was composed and expressed remorse.

He said he wanted to “tell people my story because there are a lot of people in my shoes” who “don’t know the consequences” of assuming a new identity to remain in the United States.

“If you get caught, you’re not going to be with your family, you’re not going to succeed,” he said. “You’re going to have to go back to Mexico, back to South America.”

His older brother Alex Ayala – born in the United States – is a U.S. citizen. Alex Ayala was fired from the Milwaukee Police Department in September, shortly after Ayala-Cornejo’s guilty plea. He has appealed his dismissal.

His older sister is also an American citizen, and his mother is a legal permanent resident. His father, Salvador, who also had his green card, died in 2004.

But Ayala-Cornejo is not a citizen. He was born in Guadalajara and came to Milwaukee as a 9-year-old, when the family settled in a basement apartment at S. 15th Place and W. Lincoln Ave. The neighborhood was tough, but he was determined to make a difference.

He wanted to be a police officer. In high school he told his father that he wanted to eventually join a police aide program, he said.

“He had this really disappointed look on his face,” Ayala-Cornejo said. “With a sad face he told me . . . I was not a citizen and because of that I cannot become an officer, I can’t continue my education, can’t go to college, can’t get a decent job.”

A solution, or so it seemed, was found. A cousin in Chicago offered to give the family documents of her son, Jose Morales, who had died at the age of 7. The two boys – Jose and Oscar – were born months apart.

“It was the only option we had,” he said. “I didn’t want to be away from my family.”

In 1999, he took on the new name, switched high schools from Pulaski to Hamilton, repeated his junior year and created a new identity. His family didn’t call him Oscar in public. He referred to his parents as his aunt and uncle. He told friends different stories about his name.

He excelled in the police aide program and moved on to the police force in 2004. He slipped through a background check because “I was so young and kind of established the name Jose Morales with going to school, gaining part-time jobs. I seemed like any other kid in high school who wanted to become an aide.”

On May 31, his story unraveled. Ayala-Cornejo was arrested by two plainclothes officers and questioned by immigration officials. He said he recognized two of them from doing Spanish translation for them.

An anonymous tip had led to an investigation of Ayala-Cornejo. His yearbook pictures from two schools, with different names, helped seal the case, he said. He admitted what he had done.

“There is probably a reasonable likelihood that the guy could have followed legal steps and become a citizen or at least gain lawful resident alien status,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Johnson. “I guess it’s an obvious lesson the shortcut may seem like a good idea but maybe really isn’t in the long run.”

Under a plea agreement, Ayala-Cornejo faces six to 12 months in prison, but it’s possible he could also be eligible for probation.

He’s eager to start a new life in Mexico.

“It’s tough but I know I can do it,” he said. “I’m young, I’m bilingual. Mexico has a lot of opportunities down there. I know initially we came over to the United States because those opportunities weren’t available. But I feel confident I’ll find something, and I’m going to make it.”

I have to comment, however, on the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s suggestion that Ayala-Cornejo might have had a chance at LPR status or citizenship had he not taken on the U.S. citizen identity. Those kind of uninformed comments constantly give Americans the idea that there is a reasonable legal path around some of these choices had the person just been a little higher up on the morality scale.

On one hand, a person who falsely claims U.S. citizenship does accrue a lifetime bar with no waiver available to him ever. So at this point, even if Mr. Ayala-Cornejo has an American girlfriend or fiancee, he’s S.O.L. He will never be able to return to the U.S. legally as the laws currently allow.

However, even if Ayala-Cornejo had never falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen, he would have had to marry a U.S. citizen to be able to gain legal status in any sort of expeditious manner. (Not that there is anything wrong with marrying a U.S. citizen, but that’s just not an option for everyone). Even that would have involved the same waiver process and likely wait in Mexico that my husband went through. His other option would have been to have his permanent resident mother or father petition for him, but that would have taken about 16 years considering current processing times. Even if Ayala-Cornejo had entered the U.S. as an infant in the arms of his mother, he would have faced the same situation.

I hope Oscar is able to start a new life in Mexico. He is right – there are more opportunities there now, but I imagine he will still face immense difficulties. Husbands of friends I know from the forum have stated that despite being bilingual and educated, they have been unable to find decent-paying work in various Mexican cities.

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