To his colleagues, he is a loyal and upstanding civil servant who helped make his neighborhood a safer place.
To the Immigration Department, he is an illegal immigrant who assumed another citizen's identity — a crime that demands deportation from the United States.
Police officer Oscar Ayala-Cornejo was arrested May 31, 2007, on the charge of falsely representing himself as an American citizen. He was deported Sunday morning to Guadalajara, Mexico, and is banned from the U.S. for life.
Ayala-Cornejo and his family moved from Guadalajara when he was nine. They rented a basement apartment in the south side of Milwaukee, next door to a crack house. Multiple shootings occurred in the area while they were there, and once, their small basement room was robbed. Ayala-Cornejo and his brother and sister were never allowed to play alone outside.
He saw, firsthand, the effect crime has on families. At 15, he decided to become a police officer.
When he announced that he wanted to enroll in a police apprenticeship program, his father finally told him the truth. His parents had brought him to the U.S. illegally, so Ayala-Cornejo could never be a police officer. It was unlikely he could even go to college.
His father was determined to find a solution — and he did. Ayala-Cornejo would adopt the identity of his cousin's son, Jose Morales, who was an American citizen, but had died of leukemia in Mexico.
"His cousin believed it was a way for some good to come of his son's passing, and a way of keeping the memory of his son alive," explained Darryl Morin, the family's spokesperson, and special project coordinator for the League of Latin American Citizens.
Because his older brother was born in the U.S., and was a citizen, Ayala-Cornejo could have become a citizen legally. But it would have meant leaving the U.S. and waiting at least 14 years for the documentation to be authorized and completed.
Ayala-Cornejo did not want to wait. So, at 16, he changed high schools and became Jose Morales, calling his parents his aunt and uncle. He made excellent grades and was given top cadet honors in his Junior ROTC program. He later said it was especially difficult on graduation day, lying to teachers about his relationship with his parents.
He joined the police apprenticeship program, continued on to the police academy, and in May 2005, he became an officer for the Milwaukee Police Department, where he patrolled the same area in South Side Milwaukee where he had been raised.
In his time off, Ayala-Cornejo volunteered to translate Spanish at the police department, and worked to generate college scholarship funds for disadvantaged students. "He is one of those rare individuals who is truly that exceptional," said Morin.
The life and the lie ended last May when, on an anonymous tip, immigration agents arrested him.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of probation and permanent deportation. Morin, who helped the family find an attorney, said he couldn't have fought the sentence, because "the way immigration law is, regardless of age, if you ever use the identity of another citizen, you are automatically deported and banned for life from the U.S."
His arrest was shocking to those who knew him. "The guy had an unblemished record with the department. Everyone liked him. He did his job. He was eager to continue to be what he loved to be," said Luis Gonzales, a police officer who worked with Ayala-Cornejo, and the vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Latino Peace Officers Association.
"He is a young man who basically did what his father had asked him to do," said Gonzales. "Why did he do that? He did it because of the way the immigration laws are set in this country."
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in Ayala-Cornejo's situation. Brought to the U.S. by their parents as children, they often feel entirely American. For Ayala-Cornejo, Mexico feels like a foreign country.
About a month ago, two of the officers, with whom he had worked, were shot in his patrol area. He told Morin that he had never felt so helpless, and felt tremendous guilt for not having been there to help them.
He returned to his birth home today as a Mexican citizen with an American accent.