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Alexis Stevens liked to describe herself as a model citizen. She was adopted from England by a U.S. military family who moved her to Texas. She raised a family, put herself through college and became a school teacher.
Four years ago, Stevens and her husband, Wayne, decided to celebrate their wedding anniversary and Stevens’ completion of her master’s degree by going on a trip to Europe.
“I’ve always wanted to see where I was born,” Stevens said.
The couple submitted passport applications and made a deposit on the trip. A few weeks later, Wayne’s passport arrived in the mail.
His wife’s did not. Turns out the model citizen was not a citizen at all.
Stevens’ parents never went through the process to allow Stevens to become a U.S. citizen. The mistake her parents made by not applying for naturalization of their adopted children almost 50 years ago has sent Steven’s life reeling, leaving her uncertain of her identity and her future.
Stevens has heard horror stories of adoptees returned to their birth country because they’d broken the law. She wonders if that applies to her because she voted in every election since she turned 18 and signed documents to get jobs and college aid stating she was an American citizen.
“It’s a scary feeling,” Stevens said in the kitchen of her Estero home. “Am I going to end up deported?”
‘Who am I?’
Stevens’ adoptive father was in the Army, stationed in England, when he and his wife adopted the 2-year-old Stevens and her younger sister.
When Stevens was 3 the family moved to Texas, where a court made the adoption official in the U.S. and issued Stevens a Texas birth certificate.
Stevens obtained a Social Security card, a driver’s license and voter registration card. Her citizenship never was questioned and she assumed she became an American when Americans adopted her.
Now 52, Stevens breaks into tears when she talks about not being a U.S. citizen.
“I guess what makes it hard is it brings up the feeling of, ‘Who am I?'” she says.
After realizing the State Department had not simply made an error in not issuing her passport, Stevens went for an interview with the immigration service in Tampa. She was given the wrong form to submit for citizenship. The application was rejected and she lost the $420 fee.
That’s when she hired an immigration attorney, spent thousands of dollars and had her legal residency card reissued. The attorney told her he needs $4,500 if she wants him to represent her before an immigration court judge.
“You have many hundreds if not thousands of children who were adopted and are here legally, but are not U.S. citizens and therefore not afforded all the protections of U.S. citizenship,” said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption, an advocacy organization.
More than half of the children adopted overseas by American parents become U.S. citizens when they enter the country thanks to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. But the law doesn’t apply to anyone who was 18 or older on Feb. 27 , 2001.
“We’ve been in conversations with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of State and they know this is an ongoing problem,” Johnson said. “But no one has offered a fix.”
After adopting three siblings from eastern Europe, McLane Layton was surprised to find out the children aren’t citizens.
“They’re supposed to be treated like I had given birth to them,” she said.
Layton worked as legislative counsel to then-U.S. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and wrote the Child Citizenship Act before founding Equality for Adopted Children.
Layton’s group advocates for adopted children to have the same rights as any child of American parents. The group has been unsuccessful in getting legislation passed to cover older adoptees who did not obtain citizenship.
“It’s no fault of their own. It’s neglect and ignorance on the part of the parents,” Layton said. “The adoptee should not be punished in such a serious way because of the failure of their parents.”
Stevens never will know why her parents failed to apply for her citizenship. Her adoptive father died when she was 6. Her adoptive mother died when she was 16. Her sister died at 19.
‘Puts your life in limbo’
Anita Cotter is going it alone with the Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Cotter was a toddler when she immigrated with her American military parents into Texas. She, too, thought her Texas birth certificate was proof of her citizenship.
Cotter, who will be 53 next week, found her German birth mother living in Kansas. About 2 1/2 years ago she moved to be closer to her mother and the immigration problems began.
To get a driver’s license in Kansas, Cotter needed to prove her citizenship. But her adoptive parents, like Steven’s parents, had never applied for her naturalization.
“I was astounded,” Cotter said. “I didn’t know what to say. I’ve lived here all my life as a citizen and to get slapped with this at 50 years old was a total and complete shock.”
The couple who adopted Cotter in Germany and brought her to the U.S. are dead. And Cotter is having a difficult time getting the adoption records she needs to apply for citizenship.
The whole process “puts your life in limbo,” Cotter said. “I’d be real interested in knowing how many of us there are out there.”
Most American parents complete the requirements for their foreign-born adopted children to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Grace Willoughby was born in Germany and adopted by an American military family. She lives in California and has a vivid recollection of the naturalization ceremony in Baltimore when she was about 7.
“I stood up, put my hand up and swore I would be a good citizen of the United States,” Willoughby said. “I remember that.”
Jeanne Dunham of California also recalls a swearing-in ceremony when she was 11 or 12.
Her parents adopted her and the boy who became her brother from German children’s homes in the 1950s. The couple were provided with step-by-step instructions written in German, which she still has, Dunham said. One of the steps was to apply for the adopted child’s U.S. citizenship.
Kathleen Moakler, government relations director for the National Military Family Association, doubts people received much guidance from the military about how to proceed with an adoption and naturalization of a foreign-born child.
“Everything was so much looser then,” Moakler said.
Moakler, a U.S. citizen, gave birth to her son while overseas in 1975. She registered him as a U.S. citizen only because she had “read a blurb” on the topic in a magazine she picked up at the commissary.
“I just wanted to make sure his ducks were in a row so when he ran for president no one would challenge him,” she said. “If I had not seen that article, I wouldn’t have done it.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said last year 28 adopted children of military parents were naturalized in ceremonies overseas. Rhatigan said the State Department’s website clearly explains to parents about naturalization and the perils of not getting citizenship for an adopted foreign-born child.
What was told or not told to people who adopted 40 or 50 years ago, isn’t known. But people who immigrated legally, as did Cotter and Stevens, can apply for citizenship now if they want, Rhatigan said. They will have to meet all the requirements such as passing the citizenship test. Once the application is made, processing time can be as short as five months. But in some cases it takes years, because of residency and other requirements.
Cotter and Stevens intend to get their U.S. citizenship.
“Before all this, I was the most patriotic person you would know,” Stevens said.
“I love this country. I have no intention of moving,” Cotter said.
But, she added, “It’s like a slap in the face. I’m an American and they don’t consider me one.”
By Melanie Payne
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