NewsFlorida News

Actions

Another Floridian learns she’s not a U.S. citizen nearly 60 years after moving to the U.S.

Poor communication, broken system blamed for citizenship woes, experts say
Cynthia Down
Posted at 2:38 PM, Jun 13, 2024

CHATTAHOOCHEE, Fla. — Pictures of Cynthia Down’s life on the farm in Chattahoochee, a small city just outside Tallahassee, date back more than 30 years.

The land, which has been in her husband’s family for generations, is where the couple raised their girls, started their own hobby farm, and are well into training the family’s next generation.

For Cynthia, it’s the perfect life for a small-town American girl who always assumed she was…American.

“I just didn't never think about nothing else. I’ve paid my taxes; I've done everything like everybody else, and I've been here all my life," Cynthia told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone recently. "I’ve never been to Canada, except for when I was born, and I didn't remember that."

Cynthia’s birth mom was Canadian, and her dad was American. She said the family moved to the United States when she was just an infant and America is the only home Cynthia has ever known.

“Never, no red flags,” she said about any questions she’s faced over her citizenship status.

Citizenship issues

That is, until she went to renew her driver’s license a few years ago and the DMV informed her that she wasn’t here legally.

Cynthia was 62 years old at the time.

“I thought it was crazy,” she said. “Yeah, that was crazy.”

Cynthia said that since then, she’s been fighting to prove her father’s American roots. To claim dual citizenship, Cynthia’s dad had to have been living in the U.S. for five years before Cynthia was born, which Cynthia said he was.

But with so much time passed, digging up her father’s past has been tough. Though her dad served in the U.S. military, Cynthia was informed his military records were destroyed in a fire at the government facility where they were housed.

Without enough evidence, Cynthia is not eligible for dual citizenship, which means she won’t be able to collect her Social Security retirement benefits, which she estimates are worth about $2,000 per month.

“It just tears me up,” she said, getting emotional. “I just thought I’d done everything right, up and down. But when it’s time I get the money I earned, I can't get it,” she said.

When asked who she blames, Cynthia responded, “I think it's the system.”

Cynthia’s citizenship fight isn’t unique.

Last month, we introduced you to Jimmy Klass, who was also born in Canada, raised in America, and has lived his entire life as an American. Klass even voted in every U.S. election he could.

“I’ve been voting for 40 years. I guess I’m in a lot of trouble,” he joked at the time. [Klass has since removed himself from the voting rolls]

Klass learned he too wasn’t a U.S. citizen when Social Security refused to pay him his retirement benefits because he couldn’t prove his legal status.

Florida man finds he’s not a legal citizen 60 years after moving to the U.S.

At the time, Klass had been living in America for 64 years.

“I was totally blindsided,” he told us about learning he wasn’t here legally.

Our story about Klass went viral and attracted new attention from U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, whose office confirmed to us in an email that they are in touch with Klass to “offer assistance.”

Immigration Attorney Elizabeth Ricci is representing Cynthia and said what’s happening to Cynthia and Jimmy is the result of America’s complex, confusing, and constantly changing immigration system.

“It's a reflection of a poor system, poor communication, and a breakdown over many years by different agencies,” she said.

Ricci continued, “No one ever pointed out to either of the people that were talking about that they didn't have proof of citizenship. No one ever asked for that until they were approaching retirement. That's a big problem, and it tells me there are many, many other people in this situation."

Now Cynthia Downs and Jimmy Klass are learning later in life what, they believe, they should have been told decades earlier.

“I’m supposed to be retired. You know, my pension and Social Security, that's what I worked for. I get my pension, but I don't get my social security,” Klass said.

When asked what she wants the government to know about her, Cynthia responded, “The same as every American in this world. I’ve been here, I pay my taxes, and I should get my little Social Security back. I love America. This is not fair.”

Send your story idea and tips to Katie LaGrone