Originally published by The New York Times
BETHEL, Alaska — When Rebecca Trimble was a little girl, she wore red, white and blue to Independence Day parades. In middle school, she was a flag-bearer for the Girl Scouts. During her teenage years, the Backstreet Boys blared from a boom box in her bedroom.
It was on the eve of getting married in 2012 that she realized there was something amiss in her all-American upbringing. Adopted as an infant from Mexico, she discovered that what she thought was a minor mix-up in her paperwork was something else entirely. Eventually, she realized that not only was she not American, she did not, in the government’s view, belong in the United States at all.
This year, a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services arrived in the remote corner of western Alaska where Ms. Trimble cooks for homeless people and where her husband, John, is the only dentist in town.
“You are not authorized to remain in the United States,” it said, ordering her to depart the country within 33 days or face deportation.
“I feel incredibly vulnerable,” Ms. Trimble, 30, said as her two boys, Elliot, 5, and Jay, 4, played in their Bethel apartment on a sun-smacked afternoon. “I am putting my faith in a miracle.”
Lax oversight of international adoptions for years fueled a booming trade in babies. In the 1980s and ’90s, Americans seeking children were tricked into paying organized rings for babies smuggled across the border. In the early 2000s, children wrongly taken from their parents by brokers in Vietnam, Guatemala and other countries were presented as orphans to American adoption agencies. In other cases, parents did not understand, or did not follow, the rules for making foreign adoptions fully legal.
Adherence by countries like Mexico to international conventions to prevent the abduction, sale or trafficking of children has curbed illicit adoptions in recent years. But some of the irregular practices of the past are upending the lives of adoptees like Ms. Trimble as they reach adulthood.
“There are too many people in limbo through no fault of their own,” said Susan Jacobs, a retired ambassador who was the special adviser on adoptions at the State Department between 2010 and 2017. “They find out in their 20s, and are held accountable for what their parents did or didn’t do when they were babies.”
The Adoptee Rights Campaign, a group that promotes citizenship for adoptees, estimates that at least 35,000 people in the United States lack American citizenship because their adoptive parents failed to secure it for them.
They have started families of their own, only to learn the truth when they went to vote, tried to obtain a passport or got into trouble with the law. More recently, their precarious status has been laid bare when they applied for a Real ID, a license with stricter standards that will be required for domestic air travel in 2021.
“Adopted adults are discovering they are not citizens after thinking they were Americans all their lives,” said Gregory Luce, an immigration and adoptee rights lawyer in Minneapolis.
In 2001, Congress provided relief for adoptees below the age of 18 who lacked citizenship, and the federal government has been willing to help others adjust their status on a case-by-case basis. But that flexibility appears to have diminished under the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration agenda.
Ms. Trimble has found herself on a tangled journey through the immigration bureaucracy, where every appeal seems to end the same: She must return to a country she has not seen since she was 3 days old.
A baby born in Mexico
Ms. Trimble’s story began when her adoptive father, George Wilson, a recreational vehicle mechanic in Salem, Ore., and his wife, Pamela Edmonds, gave up on conceiving a child after eight years of trying. One day in 1989, they got word from friends in Mexico that a baby about to be born to a 12-year-old girl there would need a home. They agreed to pay the girl’s medical bills and headed for Mexico with a stash of diapers, baby bottles and newborn clothes.
Three days later, they were homebound with their daughter. At the border, a U.S. agent peered into their vehicle, where Rebecca was bundled up in her new mother’s arms; he waved them through. The next month, a birth certificate arrived from Mexico that listed them as Rebecca Lynn Wilson’s parents, which they thought — incorrectly — was all they needed to render the adoption legal.
Becky, as they called her, was a bubbly child with almond-shaped brown eyes and silky dark hair. “She was such a joy, so smart and so loving,” Ms. Edmonds, now 62, recalled.
Eventually, Becky learned that she was adopted. “I didn’t think I was any less American.”
After her parents separated, Ms. Trimble and her mother moved to Vancouver, Wash. At Hudson’s Bay High School, Becky excelled in her classes, took up bowling and managed the track team.
One of her teachers encouraged the class to register to vote ahead of the 2008 presidential election, and that November, Ms. Trimble voted for the only time in her life.
She fell in love with a fellow student, John Trimble, a distance runner who took her to the prom. After high school, the couple decided to get married and thought about a road trip to Canada for their honeymoon.
In the spring of 2012, Ms. Trimble applied for an enhanced ID, an alternative to a passport that Americans can use to enter the United States from Canada or Mexico.
A clerk studied her Mexican birth certificate, handed it back to her and said that Ms. Trimble had to show further proof of American citizenship, such as a naturalization certificate. She was stumped.
“I go to my mom and ask her questions, and she doesn’t know. John and I started researching,” she recalled.
Confused, the couple chose to focus on their upcoming wedding. “I’m a pretty optimistic person,” Dr. Trimble, 29, recalled. “I thought, ‘We’ll figure it out.’”
Only much later did the extent of the problems with how her parents handled her adoption become apparent. Before leaving Mexico, Ms. Trimble’s parents should have obtained official custody of their new baby from a Mexican judge and then secured an immigrant visa for her at a U.S. consulate.
Ms. Trimble’s parents said they did not know that they had run afoul of any rules. The doctor who delivered her, they said, had informed them that all they needed to formalize the adoption was a birth certificate listing them as parents, and they were given one by the friends who had arranged the adoption. In Oregon, they applied for and received a Social Security card for Ms. Trimble. “As far as we knew, Becky was a citizen of the United States,” said Mr. Wilson, who is now 74.
What they would later learn was that Ms. Trimble did not have clear Mexican citizenship, either. Mexican authorities told them they had no record of the birth certificate the couple had received in the mail.
“I feel like, what’s the word for it, I have not done right by her,” Mr. Wilson said. “I feel like I failed her.”
Immigration Services officials said the agency does not comment on individual cases, but emphasized the need for adoptive parents to obtain visas for children brought into the country.
The Trimbles, who could not afford a lawyer, visited a legal aid group in 2015. During a wrenching meeting, they grasped the severity of Ms. Trimble’s situation for the first time. Not only was she not American. She also was unlawfully in the country.
As an undocumented immigrant, Ms. Trimble would be required to leave the United States and wait 10 years before re-entering as a green card applicant.
But there was hope. Having an American spouse in the military, which Dr. Trimble had joined to defray the cost of dental school, could provide a quicker path to a green card. Ms. Trimble was eligible to apply for an exemption that would allow her to remain in the United States while her application was pending.
Dr. Trimble noted on the form that his wife “literally knows zero people who live in Mexico.” She did not know the whereabouts of her biological parents. She did not speak Spanish.
But what happened next seemed to defy logic.
In February 2016, the government denied Ms. Trimble the exemption on the grounds that such a remedy is available only to those who have illegally entered the country. Ms. Trimble’s entry had not been unlawful, the agency said, because she had been waved through by a border agent.
Confident now that she could apply without a special exemption, Ms. Trimble filed a formal application for a green card in December 2016, with her husband as her sponsor.
Her packet contained dozens of pages of documents, including tax returns, a marriage certificate and photos of her wedding.
Months passed, and the couple heard nothing.
In early 2017, during Dr. Trimble’s last year of dental school, he began searching for jobs in underserved areas to fulfill the requirement of his military scholarship.
He accepted a position at the community clinic in Bethel — about 400 miles from Anchorage on the Kuskokwim River — which is covered with snow and ice much of the year and can be reached only by airplane or boat.
As the family was packing, Ms. Trimble was notified by Immigration Services that she had been scheduled, in late June, for an in-person interview — a crucial, and often last, step in the green card process.
At the meeting, the officer’s line of questioning veered to her voting record. Yes, Ms. Trimble said, she had voted in a national election when she was 19.
“I told her that I thought I was doing my civic duty,” Ms. Trimble recalled. “I had no reason to believe I wasn’t a U.S. citizen.”
A new home in Alaska
The Trimbles arrived in Bethel in July 2017, just in time to forage for berries in the tundra.
As the only dentist at the local family clinic, Dr. Trimble saw his roster of patients from the tight-knit community quickly grow.
He played guitar in the band of Bethel Evangelical Covenant Church. Ms. Trimble became the head chef of the church’s Supper Club for the Homeless and began leading Bible study for young children.
Meanwhile, Immigration Services started raising questions about the authenticity of Ms. Trimble’s Mexican birth certificate.
One problem was that the birth certificate that had been given to her parents all those years ago was issued not in Baja California, where she was born, but in the state of Oaxaca, some 2,000 miles away. And though Ms. Trimble’s parents also had a copy of the hospital birth record in Baja California, there was no official record of her birth registered with the authorities there.
Mexican authorities told her that a judge would have to analyze the circumstances surrounding her birth and interview witnesses to issue a new birth certificate, if one was needed. And Ms. Trimble would have to be present, they said — with no guarantee that she would be allowed to re-enter the United States.
Despite the uncertainty, the couple got on with life. Becky’s pear preserves won first place at the town fair that summer. The couple erected a shave ice stand, serving 21 flavors.
They began sharing snippets of their saga with friends.
At church, prayer requests poured in on their behalf.
“Our whole church family has bathed Becky’s situation in prayer,” said Adam London, the senior pastor of the 200-strong congregation.
One member, a state representative for Bethel, suggested that the couple contact the office of Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, for assistance. Immigration Services responded to the senator that the case was “under review.”
In May of last year, a member of their church organized a garage sale to benefit a family in need. Ms. Trimble was unaware that the proceeds — ultimately $1,486.01 — were to help with her legal fees.
The Trimbles hired Margaret Stock, an Anchorage lawyer who met a supervisor at Immigration Services to discuss the case. Several more months passed.
In February, Ms. Trimble received a two-page decision denying her a green card.
The denial stated that on Jan. 17, 2008, she had illegally registered to vote and that she had then voted in a general election that November. “Therefore, your application must be and hereby is denied,” it said.
Ms. Trimble had 33 days to depart the country, or face deportation.
“I felt I had no identity at that moment. I meant nothing,” she said, her voice breaking.
In March, Ms. Stock filed a motion to reopen Ms. Trimble’s case, and the Bethel City Council passed a resolution urging federal representatives and agencies to recognize “the uniqueness of Rebecca Trimble’s situation.”
Last month, Immigration Services declined the request. Ms. Stock’s next move is to sue the agency in federal court to secure a green card or citizenship for her client.
Both Alaska senators have introduced a private bill “for the relief of Becky Trimble” that would be required to pass the House and the Senate, a process that could take years.
Ms. Trimble, whose legal bills have mounted, has not been informed that a deportation case has commenced against her, perhaps because the coronavirus pandemic has slowed immigration enforcement.
For now, she is trying to resume what she called “a quiet, normal life.” On Jay’s birthday, she baked lemon cake with tundra-blueberry frosting, and the family celebrated on Zoom with friends and relatives. She tried to suppress fears of immigration agents showing up to take her away.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.