If you were going to suggest a cast for a reality show about life in the suburbs, you might pick Nick Ortega and his family. His house in Loveland is the stereotypic American dream: two-car garage, neatly trimmed lawn and family pictures in every corner of the living room. Downstairs, in the basement, you’ll find Ortega’s “man cave,” a couch facing a big screen TV, a foosball table and a couple of guitars from Ortega’s rock band days in the 1990s.
There are pictures of Ortega when he was a kid on a baseball team, and photos of his son’s team with Ortega standing to one side as coach.
Beyond this slice of Americana is the “living nightmare” that Ortega has yet to tell his neighbors about.
After more than four decades in Colorado, Ortega was shocked to learn that he’s not an American citizen, as his parents had always told him.
“I still wake up and can’t believe it,” he says.
He’s worked for decades in the United States without any problem. He’s filed income taxes since 1983. He has a driver’s license. He bought a house. For two decades he has lived with his common-law wife, a multigenerational U.S. citizen from Montana. Both of his children are citizens.
Ortega may have never found out he wasn’t a citizen if United Parcel Service, his employer of more than a decade, had not in 2010 run his name and the names of his coworkers through E-verify, the Department of Homeland Security’s internet-based system for determining whether employees are eligible to work in the United States. UPS told Ortega that his Social Security number identified him as someone born outside the country.
“‘That’s strange,’ I said,” says Ortega.
So began a frustrating and emotional journey where Ortega, now 47 years old, began to unravel family secrets that nobody had ever told him.
“My parents just never talked much about the past,” he says. “It was very difficult to get answers out of them.”
Eventually, he did. Ortega discovered that he was born in Mexico in November of 1966. That made him a year older than he’d always been told. He learned that he migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico to the United States with his mother and siblings in 1972 around the age of five. They traveled on a bus that was waved through a U.S. border checkpoint in El Paso. From there, the family traveled to Colorado to be with Ortega’s father, a Texas-born U.S. citizen from a family with a long tradition of farm laboring. Ortega has been in the United States ever since.
His upbringing in Greeley, Colo., was modest. His family was poor, working hard for subsistence wages. After he graduated from high school, Ortega did some construction as well as gigs with his rock band. He settled into a job at a rent-to-own store and later worked several years for a furniture sales ware house. One day, he set his sights on a job that would provide a more secure foundation for his family — driving a truck for UPS. He began as a seasonal driver, but worked constantly, punching the overtime clock every time his managers said there were extra hours to fill.
“I knew there were a lot of drivers who wanted to go full time, so I made myself stand out by working the hardest,” he says.
It paid off. He was hired as a regular driver with benefits, joined the Teamsters Union and over the years steadily inched his way up to a payday of about $90,000 a year. He shows a stack of honors he received from UPS, including nearly a decade of safe driving awards and honors for “Total Quality Service.”
When the news came that UPS was letting him go, Ortega was devastated.
“It was like my whole world was crumbling around me,” he says.
Only a handful of states require E-verify checks as mandatory for all employers. Colorado is not one of them. In Colorado, only contractors for the state and the city of Denver are required to undergo the checks that critics say may unfairly target workers and can be open to fraud. A Homeland Security Department study found that about half the undocumented workers checked by E-verify were deemed eligible for work.
The Teamsters Union Local 705 in the Chicago area chided UPS for using E-verify to check 340,000 workers around the time Ortega was let go. In the Chicago area, at least 280 employees, including possible U.S. citizens, were reportedly dismissed, according to a statement by the union.
UPS failed to return a request for comment by deadline.