A Navy veteran, he was known for going the extra mile: One day, while off duty, he rushed out of a barbecue at his in-laws’ house in Sierra Vista, Arizona, when he spotted a migrant man being chased by the Border Patrol. He tackled the runner and held him until the agents caught up.
Few knew De La Garza’s secret: He was in the country illegally, too.
The nation’s main border protection agency had hired an unauthorized immigrant to police the border — one of at least four cases of workers in the country illegally revealed to be working at federal immigration agencies in recent years.
De La Garza, 38, was born in Mexico, and had lied about his citizenship status and supplied his employer with a fraudulent Texas birth certificate that falsely said he was born in Brownsville, Texas.
“In retrospect, I fully understand now that I was being selfish in my desire to serve my country that I had so loved,” he wrote after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts of passport fraud and making false statements on his application for a federal law enforcement background check.
De La Garza agreed to plead guilty to one count of passport fraud, and the other two counts were dropped. On Thursday he was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Tucson, Arizona to one year of probation and a $1,000 fine. Judge Raner C. Collins said his service to the country “ought to count for something.”
Before the brief hearing, De La Garza was surrounded by friends and relatives, including his two daughters, aged 2 and 4, who are U.S. citizens. He stood quietly before the judge dressed in a black suit.
The Trump administration has pushed employers to stop hiring workers in the U.S. illegally, urging the use of electronic verification tools and document checks and conducting hundreds of workplace raids to arrest and deport unauthorized immigrants. The fact that one was working in its own federal ranks shows the difficulty of ascertaining work status in a nation where the labor of immigrants is considered crucial in many industries. There are estimated to be 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country.
Federal authorities also must field a workforce that by design reflects the heavily Hispanic communities across the Southwest they are expected to police. Agents sometimes have relatives, friends and neighbors whom they know or suspect entered the country illegally. In South Texas, one of the most heavily traveled migrant corridors in the country, Border Patrol agents or their spouses have sometimes hired unauthorized housekeepers, as do many of their neighbors.
De La Garza’s deception was unusual for Customs and Border Protection, the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with nearly twice the staff of the FBI. Yet it was not unprecedented. There have been at least three other cases of unauthorized people working as Customs officers or Border Patrol agents who were prosecuted in federal court in recent years.
One of those cases involved Oscar Antonio Ortiz, a Border Patrol agent in the San Diego area, who first applied for work in the weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Like De La Garza, Ortiz was a Mexican citizen with a fraudulent birth certificate who had served in the Navy.
But once he was hired, Ortiz got involved, along with another agent, in human smuggling: transporting migrants for money into the United States, sometimes in their Border Patrol vehicles, according to court documents. Ortiz, who had been assigned to the Border Patrol station in El Cajon, California, was sentenced in 2006 to five years in prison.
Ortiz was later deported and now lives in Mexico. His lawyer, Stephen P. White, said his client had believed, like De La Garza, that he was born in the United States, based on what his parents told him and the fraudulent birth certificate they had provided him.
“He got security clearances, background checks multiple times and was as surprised as anybody else to find out that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen when he got arrested on the alien smuggling charge,” White said.
De La Garza worked at the port of entry in Douglas, Arizona, about 120 miles southeast of Tucson. He lived with his wife and children about 40 miles west of Douglas in the town of Hereford, and appeared to relish his job, filling his home with mugs, clocks and other trinkets bearing Customs or Navy logos.
He was born in Matamoros, Mexico, and lived for most of his childhood in Mexico with his mother, moving to the South Texas city of Brownsville as a teenager. In 2003, at age 23, he enlisted in the Navy and served on the USS Greeneville, a nuclear submarine. He received an honorable discharge in 2008, and went to work for Customs and Border Protection in 2012, earning a spot as a squad leader at the agency’s basic training academy in Georgia.
The authorities appeared to first learn that De La Garza was actually a Mexican citizen around the time he applied for a U.S. passport in 2017.
De La Garza wrote in a letter he submitted to Collins that he had believed in his youth that he was American.
“Growing up, my parents told me that I was a U.S. citizen, and my whole childhood I was led to believe this was true,” he wrote. “Because of that, I grew up thinking I would do my duty one day and join the U.S. military.”
Both of his parents tried to discourage that idea, and when, as a teenager in Mexico, he asked for his birth certificate, he was told the truth. His mother, he wrote, “told me that I had been lied to my whole life and I was and had been all along, a Mexican citizen. I refused to believe that to be the truth, and still came to America with my U.S. birth certificate that she had given me.”
The birth certificate was a legitimate government-issued document that was based on fraudulent information. Prosecutors said that it listed Brownsville as his place of birth in December 1980. In reality, he was born in Mexico in October 1980.
The midwife listed on the fraudulent Texas birth record was convicted in 1984 of conspiracy to make false statements on birth certificates, prosecutors said.
Nonetheless, De La Garza used that birth certificate to claim U.S. citizenship, including for his five-year background check for Customs and Border Protection in October 2016 and on his passport application in October 2017
Citing his lack of any criminal history, federal probation officials recommended to the court that he serve one year of probation with no prison time. De La Garza told the judge in his letter that he hoped to one day legalize his immigration status, and his lawyer, Matthew H. Green, said that under the Immigration and Nationality Act, he was eligible as a veteran to apply for citizenship one year after the date of his criminal conviction.
But it remains unclear whether De La Garza will be allowed to remain in the United States. He faces the possibility of being deported, but Green said that he had been told that immigration officials decided against removal proceedings.
“That’s what we have to look forward to at this point, applying for naturalization in a year,” Green said.
In a letter to the court, Green said his client had one hope: “Mr. De La Garza and his family ask only one thing from the United States — they ask for a second chance.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.