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More than 60 years after moving to the US, Florida man discovers he's not here legally

Revelation came when Social Security denied him benefits.
Jimmy Klass
Posted at 9:01 AM, May 08, 2024

Outside Jimmy Klass’ mobile home in Clearwater, Florida, symbols of American pride hang not just front and center but also on the side and back of his home. America is, after all, the only home this 66-year-old has ever known.

“I moved to the US in 1959. I’ve been here for 64 years,” he recently told Scripps News Tampa.

But after more than half a century in the U.S., where he’s lived, worked, gone to school, got married, had kids, paid his taxes, and even voted, Klass said in 2020 he discovered he’s not a U.S. citizen.

“I just was, like, blindsided,” he said about the revelation.

Klass said it all came to light after he applied for the Social Security retirement benefits he had paid into his entire working life.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “One month, they told me I should expect my first check on the second Wednesday of 2020. But instead, I get a letter stating that I haven't proven to them that I’m here legally."

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More than 60 years after moving to the U.S., Florida man discovers he’s not here legally

Deep Roots in America

Klass was born in Canada. His mom was Canadian, but his father was American, born and raised in New York. Klass said his family moved to the U.S. when he was 2 and stayed here. As Klass got older, he assumed he, too, was an American, a dual citizen.

He laid out dozens of documents from his past, along with other documents and pictures that offer a glimpse into the deep roots he formed in the U.S. over his lifetime.

“You know you're old when the old driver's licenses were paper,” he chuckled as he showed us old driver's licenses he had been issued in the U.S.

Klass said he was never questioned about his citizenship status — not when he got his Social Security card, driver’s license, or voter registration card.

“I’ve been voting for over 40 years. I guess I’m in a lot of trouble,” he said with a sarcastic laugh.

By voting as a non-U.S. citizen, Klass broke federal law each time he participated in an American election.

Klass said his citizenship status was also never questioned when he applied for and was approved to serve as a Marine for the U.S. military (he didn’t end up serving due to getting a union job, he said). At one point in his life, he was even approved to work for the New Jersey State Police.

“The only thing they asked me for was my Social Security card and my driver's license,” he said.

Denied

After learning he wasn’t really a U.S. citizen, Klass formally applied for status but was denied.

U.S. Customs & Immigration Services wouldn’t share details when Scripps News Tampa contacted them about Klass’ case. In an email, a spokesperson stated that they don’t talk about individual cases.

But in a 2022 denial letter, the agency stated Klass didn’t provide enough evidence to prove his father lived in the U.S. for 10 years before Klass was born, which is a requirement for a child seeking citizenship through a parent.

Klass contacted Sen. Marco Rubio’s office for help and hired an immigration attorney and even a genealogist who found records linking Klass’ dad to the U.S. in the years before he was born. Still, his fight continues to this day.

“I’ve seen a handful of cases like this; they don't come around every day,” explained Indera Demine, a Fort Myers-based immigration attorney.

Is a complicated and changing U.S. Immigration system to blame?

She said Klass’ case is likely a reflection of a large, complicated, and changing U.S. immigration system that can’t always accurately track who’s here legally, illegally, or somewhere in between.

“For many years, the DMV and different agencies didn't necessarily communicate with each other,” she said, adding that “the documentation that you need to renew your driver's license or for Social Security benefits were not as stringent as they are now.”

When asked how Klass was able to get a Social Security card, Demine responded, “That's a good question. It's quite possible that back then, the requirements to have a Social Security card are not the same as it is today."

“I worked my 50 years and paid into my Social Security. They should be paying me,” he said about the retirement benefits he was expecting to receive but has yet to collect.

When asked what happens if his case doesn't get resolved and how it’s changed his view of America, Klass said, “I’ll probably move back to Canada. Yep, bye-bye, America.”

This article was originally published by Katie LaGrone for Scripps News Tampa.