Originally Published in USA Today
Marisa Kwiatkowski - December 16, 2020
FOR 40 YEARS, his name was Michael Libberton.
The Florida man defined himself by his Midwestern upbringing and the values instilled by his adoptive parents. Libberton, who was adopted shortly before his second birthday, said he thought little of the fact that he’d been born in Colombia.
Then, in 2016, Libberton applied to Lake Technical College to strengthen his welding skills. There was a problem with his paperwork. Over the next two years, Libberton followed a trail of records — from his adoptive family to the city in Illinois where he grew up to the immigration office — and learned that he was not, as he’d always believed, a U.S. citizen.
Libberton said he feels like he’s losing his country, his identity, even his name.
“You love this country, and it’s taken from you,” Libberton told USA TODAY. “Every right you thought you had, you don’t have.”
Thousands of international adoptees like Libberton came into the United States legally as children and grew up believing they were American citizens. They obtained driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, worked, married and raised families, only to find out they had been unwittingly living a lie.
International adoption does not guarantee citizenship.
The National Council for Adoption and other organizations estimate that 15,000 to 18,000 adults who were adopted as children by U.S. citizens do not have U.S. citizenship. But no one knows for sure; the federal government does not track how many adoptees receive citizenship.
A bipartisan bill now pending in Congress would provide U.S. citizenship to people who had been adopted as children by U.S. citizens — but the legislation is unlikely to move forward this session.
More than a million employers are enrolled in E-Verify, a web-based system to confirm employees’ eligibility to work in the United States, according to government statistics. Thirty-five states require an individual to provide proof of legal status to receive a driver’s license, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And, beginning October 2021, people will not be able to fly commercially unless they have a passport or Real ID, both of which require proof of permission to be in the country.
Some adoptees don’t have that proof.
“So you can’t work and you can’t drive and you can’t move around,” said Joy Alessi, director of the Adoptee Rights Campaign. “That’s a pretty big problem.”
Diane Kunz, executive director of the Center for Adoption Policy, said “it is an absolute failure on the part of our government and ourselves” that the situation hasn’t been addressed.
“Every child who was brought here for the purposes of adoption and was adopted deserves to have American citizenship,” Kunz said. “They are being punished for the mistakes and misinformation of their adoptive parents, the lawyers and the judges who oversaw their process.”
AMERICANS BEGAN TO adopt internationally in significant numbers after World War II, Kunz said, starting with orphans in Europe and expanding as a result of the Korean War.
The process then was very different from what it is today and some remnants lingered for decades. Until 2000, children adopted internationally had to be naturalized. A combination of state and federal laws created the process for their adoptive parents to follow.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes, paperwork was lost. Or lawyers, judges or adoption agencies mistakenly told parents their children would automatically become American citizens once the adoption was finalized by the state. Or parents didn’t complete the process.
Often, adoptees didn’t discover they were not U.S. citizens until they applied for passports, student loans or security clearances. Some didn’t know until they applied for Social Security, or when they enlisted in the military. Or were arrested.
In 2000, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act, which allows children adopted from other countries to automatically receive citizenship if they meet certain requirements. Then-President Bill Clinton signed it into law. It took effect Feb. 27, 2001.
An earlier version of the legislation would have covered adult adoptees, but that language was taken out. So, the law only applies to those under 18 at the time the law took effect and future underage adoptees.
Lawmakers and advocates intended to come back and address citizenship for international adoptees born before Feb. 28, 1983, said Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs for Holt International, an adoption agency based in Oregon.
“Then 9/11 happened,” Cox said. “And after that, any legislation that had to do with people immigrating just became untenable.”
Alessi, of the Adoptee Rights Campaign, was adopted from South Korea in 1967. She said her parents had always assumed she was a U.S. citizen. When she was 25, her application for a passport was denied. Alessi did not receive U.S. citizenship until April 2019, at age 52.
“These are not adults who were adopted as adults to circumvent the system of immigration,” she said. They are adults who were adopted as children by U.S. citizens. They came into this country legally, and two governments were involved in the exchange.
“It’s an injustice that’s just never been corrected,” Alessi said.
Federal legislation to grant citizenship to adult adoptees has been introduced numerous times without success. Advocates say some lawmakers have been reluctant to pass legislation that would also affect a small number of adoptees who have committed crimes and that efforts to address adoptees’ citizenship have stalled amid broader discussions of immigration policies.
Last year, U.S. Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Rob Woodall, R-Ga., introduced the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019, which would amend the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 to extend citizenship to international adoptees who had been adopted as children but were already older than 18 when the original bill took effect. The 2019 bill is co-sponsored by 94 other members of Congress — 30 Republicans and 64 Democrats.
U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Senate version of the bill.
In May 2019, the Senate bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, and the House bill was referred a month later to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. Since then, little action has been taken on either bill.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they cannot comment on pending legislation.
Michelle Bernier-Toth, special advisor for children’s issues at the State Department, said intercountry adoption is a “high priority.” She said the agency works to educate parents about what they need to do to ensure their adoptive children receive U.S. citizenship.
The number of international adoptions has plummeted over the past two decades, from a high of 22,986 adoptions in fiscal year 2004 to 2,971 in fiscal 2019, federal statistics show.
“Our goal is to make sure that intercountry remains a viable option for children who have no other potential for a permanent loving home,” Bernier-Toth said.
FOR ADOPTEES WITH connections to the military, the struggle to obtain U.S. citizenship feels particularly egregious.
Adopted from Iran when she was 2, a California woman learned she was not a U.S. citizen at 38, after she applied for a passport. She was told to visit the immigration office, and later learned that her parents had legally brought her into the country on a visitor visa but that visa expired decades ago.
“In adoption, you lose everything,” she said. “You lose your language. You lose your bloodline. You lose your religion. You lose everything as the result of adoption and then you’re given a new identity. And my new identity was given to me as a child. I was an American. This was supposed to be my home.”
The most painful loss for her — and for many other adoptees — was the loss of security. USA TODAY agreed not to identify her by name because she is afraid of being deported.
The woman was adopted at a very different time in Iran’s history, seven years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Americans who adopted her were living in Iran while her adoptive father worked on a telecommunications system under contract with the U.S. government.
He would be upset, the woman said, to learn what happened to her. He served 24 years in the military, retiring from the Air Force in 1967, and died in 2001.
“He made sacrifices for this country,” she said. “It’s such an insult to my father’s service to this country as to how they’re treating me.”
For eight years, terrified and angry, the woman kept her situation a secret, believing she was an anomaly. She said she applied for a U.S. visa through her mother in 2015. Her mother died earlier this year. But the woman, now age 50, is still waiting.
AN ICE SPOKESWOMAN said the agency does not track the number of international adoptees who have been deported, but she characterized it as “not very common.”
Adoptees for Justice, an advocacy organization led by adoptees without citizenship, said it is in contact with 47 adoptees who reported receiving deportation papers since 1999.
In a statement, ICE said it “allocates the agency’s finite immigration enforcement resources by prioritizing public and national security threats, immigration fugitives and illegal reentrants. However, all of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
Kristopher Larsen, executive director of Adoptees for Justice, said many deported adoptees struggle to find jobs and housing.
“They don’t know the country that they’re being deported to,” he said. “They don’t know the language. They don’t know the culture. And a lot of times, the countries that they’re being deported to … since they were raised here in the U.S. as U.S. citizens, the receiving countries don’t even really acknowledge the deportee as a person of that nation.”
Anissa Druesedow was deported in 2006. She can sum up her life today in one word: Hell.
Born in Jamaica, abandoned by her biological mother in Panama, sexually abused by relatives and then placed in an orphanage, Druesedow thought she’d finally found her happily ever after when she was adopted at 13 by a U.S. Army sergeant and his wife.
Druesedow said she never questioned anything about her citizenship. When she was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, she had her leg amputated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and received medical treatment for more than a year in San Antonio without a problem. She obtained a driver’s license. A Social Security number. Student loans. She never had trouble securing a job.
She said her citizenship status never came up in 1993, when she pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including forgery, criminal possession of a forged instrument and larceny.
Then, in 2004, Druesedow pleaded guilty to third-degree felony grand larceny, federal immigration records show. She told USA TODAY she had been working a seasonal job at a home decor store and allowed someone she knew to repeatedly return stolen items without receipts.
Druesedow said ICE issued a detainer and took custody of her. They told her she wasn’t a U.S. citizen and had an order of deportation.
Druesedow, whose 12-year-old daughter was living with a relative while she was incarcerated, hired an attorney to appeal the deportation. The Board of Immigration Appeals found that the statute Druesedow’s attorney cited did not apply because her parents had not gotten her naturalized before her 18th birthday, federal records show.
In March 2006, Druesedow was deported to Jamaica — a country she hadn’t seen since she was 6 years old. She sent for her daughter, and the two eventually moved to Panama.
Druesedow found work and married, but she said life has not been easy. She helped her daughter move back to the U.S. to finish school, and they haven’t seen each other in more than three years. Druesedow has had trouble getting medical treatment.
Electricity and water in her home are unreliable. She said she used buckets to collect water for flushing toilets and washing until Adoptees for Justice donated a generator and water tank and pump. Druesedow said she’s had a car stolen, a gun held to her head and she was threatened at knifepoint.
The 50-year-old said she wants to go home, which to her is the United States.
“It’s physically, emotionally, mentally just draining,” Druesedow said. “I used to want to fight. I used to want to do things. And now I just, I just want to lay in bed. And my husband is like, ‘Are you tired?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m tired.’ And what I really want to say to him is that ‘I’m tired. I just wish I could die and not wake up.’
“But I can’t say that. I can’t say that out loud to anybody because I don’t want them to worry.”
ALESSI, DIRECTOR OF Adoptee Rights Campaign, said she’s concerned about adult adoptees not covered by the Child Citizenship Act. She’s also worried about future international adoptees at risk of aging into adulthood without citizenship.
Loopholes in the law still exist, she said.
The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 streamlined the current system, Alessi said. But it only grants automatic citizenship to children whose adoptions are finalized in their country of origin. Parents who receive guardianship in the child’s birth country must finalize the adoption in the United States for the child to receive citizenship.
A child must be a lawful permanent resident in order to qualify.
Children who come here on temporary visas, such as those for students or for medical treatment, do not receive automatic citizenship when their adoption is finalized.
Cecile Pullman met the boy who would become her son in 1999 at a YMCA camp in Vermont. Emil Albright was 11 at the time, and he was visiting the U.S. from an orphanage in Romania.
“Between my daughter and I, we basically fell in love with him,” Pullman said.
She spoke with the man who facilitated Albright’s trip to the U.S., and they arranged for Albright to live with Pullman and her family while he went to school. Albright returned to the U.S. in 2000 on a student visa.
Pullman and her then-husband filed a petition to adopt Albright in August 2001, shortly before the boy was scheduled to return to Romania. Pullman said the facilitator warned her she might never see Albright again if he left the country, so she kept him in the U.S., knowing that his visa had expired.
A judge finalized the adoption Sept. 17, 2003, when Albright was 15, adoption records show.
“I thought because he was adopted that he was an automatic U.S. citizen,” Pullman said.
Albright said he learned he didn’t have citizenship years later when he applied for a passport. By that time, he was 23.
Today, he has a work permit under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, said attorney Dan Berger of Curran, Berger & Kludt in Massachusetts. Berger is helping Albright apply for a green card, a process that Berger said could take six to eight years and would require Albright to return to Romania.
Albright is self-employed. A previous employer donated land for him to build a house on in 2016. He told USA TODAY he considers Vermont his home.
“I hope to God he don’t go back,” Pullman said.
LIBBERTON’S JOURNEY TOWARD citizenship has been incredibly painful.
When researching his past, he learned that his adoptive parents had never legally changed his last name to Libberton. His adoptive mother told him that she and her husband had been told all they had to do was bring him home. He also learned that he’d once had legal residency known as a green card, but it had expired.
Libberton said his first lawyer suggested he seek legal status through his marriage to his wife, Taylor, who is a U.S. citizen. That lawyer said the citizenship process would be easier if Libberton went back to his birth name: William Ortiz.
It was a name the 44-year-old hadn’t used since he was less than a year old, a name he didn’t remember using. And it made his last name different from his wife’s and children’s. But he agreed to do so.
He cringes every time he signs a credit card slip or a form for his children.
“My name, you know, whether they gave it to me correctly or not, that’s who I am,” he said. “That’s who I grew up to be.”
Libberton said he and his wife became uncomfortable when the attorney asked him to lie to the immigration officer about whether he had previously identified himself as a U.S. citizen on employment paperwork and whether he had voted. They hired another attorney.
The second attorney recommended Libberton renew his green card, which he received in March.
Libberton knows some people may question why he has been in this country for more than 40 years and never fixed his citizenship status. He said he and other adoptees weren’t able to control the narrative of their own lives until it was too late.
“It’s not our fault,” he said, “because we were led to believe all our lives that we were something and then we’re not.”
He and others in his situation are left dealing with the aftermath. They may be denied driver's licenses, loans, work, health care and the right to vote, according to Adoptee Rights Campaign.
Libberton said he deals with anxiety for waiting so long for an answer. He and his wife said their biggest fear is deportation. But they hope it won’t come to that.
“Some of the laws obviously aren’t perfect and can’t be perfect,” Taylor Libberton said. “But this … seems like a simple fix to me. Some things are fixable.”
Marisa Kwiatkowski is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on children and social services. Contact her at email@example.com, @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855.