Called to serve: An Airman’s path to citizenship

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kalee Sexton
  • 913th Airlift Group Public Affairs

Since immigrating to the U.S. in 2007, Airman 1st Class Manuel Moreno has learned to push through any obstacle to reach his goals, always keeping his faith that things will work out.

Moreno, an electrical systems technician in the 19th Civil Engineer Squadron, started his life in Sonora, a state in Northern Mexico on the southern border of Arizona. When he was 12, his family decided it was time to move to Tucson to be closer to relatives who lived in that area.

Although life wasn’t much different for him in the U.S., he said the biggest change was the language and he was happy to be reunited with family members.

After high school, he worked odd jobs around the city, but he never felt fulfilled.

“I needed a challenge, something I’m not going to get tired of doing every single day,” he said.

In March of 2020, Moreno found that challenge: joining the U.S. Air Force.

“I always felt like I’ve never done enough. I look at my friends and I feel like they’ve gone so far in life while I was working normal jobs and not doing anything with my life,” Moreno said. “So when I took the oath of enlistment, I felt like I had finally done something I could be proud of.”

While becoming a U.S. citizen was something he had considered, it wasn’t a top priority for him — until he learned that his immigration status made him ineligible to deploy. That’s when he decided to take a serious look at the process.

Section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows eligible military members who have served during periods of hostility to become U.S. citizens. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the country has been in a period of hostility since Sept. 1, 2001. This act gave Moreno the resources he needed to seek citizenship.

Although being an Airman made it easier for him, Moreno said the process was still time consuming.

“You have to get everything right otherwise you just get denied and they move onto the next person,” he said.

In fact, he had initially started the process in December 2020, but his paperwork was lost, so he redid everything and submitted again in April 2021. From there, he said, everything went quickly. At first, he was told it would take 12-17 months for everything to go through, but in July 2021, he was asked to go to Tennessee for his citizenship interview and swearing-in ceremony.

Much like taking the Oath of Enlistment, taking the Oath of Allegiance was a milestone for Moreno.

“I saw it as something that had to be done so I could deploy and do my job overseas,” he said. “I want the full experience, not just being here. I’m a guy who likes challenges. I want to get to know places and meet different people and get to know their stories.”

His perseverance paid off, because as soon as his unit found out he had gained citizenship, they jumped at the opportunity to task him with a deployment.

Moreno said he felt called to serve to give back to the country that has given so much to him and his family.

“As an immigrant, it was my way of paying back to the country for letting me stay here,” he said. “On the other hand, my grandma always wanted to see us in uniform. When she passed away, I thought ‘That’s my cue.’”

Moreno said his grandma is his biggest inspiration for everything he’s accomplished. Although his grandmother is no longer alive today, Moreno said he continues to try to live a life that would make his grandma proud.

“I know she’s always watching over me,” he said.

Moreno — who says he plans to serve at least 20 years in the Air Force — is now looking to study kinesiology or nutrition in college, saying he enjoys taking care of himself and wants to help people be physically healthy. After earning his degree, he wants to look into becoming an officer, believing he will be able to guide and mentor more people.

Although he loves his current job, he said he would be happy with any job as an officer.

“I know I’ll be helping others regardless of the career field,” Moreno said.

In the meantime, he knows he can help people who are taking the same path he did towards citizenship.

“I feel like my story can be motivation for people who are exactly where I was,” he said. “I can give them insight into what it was like and how to deal with it. If they have any questions, they can come talk to me and I’ll help guide them and counsel them because it’s hard.”

Moreno said the hardest thing to deal with is hitting a barrier, but he knows first-hand that hard work and perseverance pays off in the end.

“Just keep working toward your goals until you reach them,” he said. “My grandma always said you have to stay true to yourself and never lose your ground.”