Some Adoptees Are Undocumented Because Their Parents Forgot to Fill Out a Form. Now Congress Is Taking Action.

Between 25,000 and 49,000 people who were adopted by American parents as children live in fear of deportation because they never got citizenship.

A newly naturalized U.S. citizen wears an American flag in her hair during a ceremony on Feb. 13, 2019. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Estimates hold that some 25,000 to 49,000 people who were adopted by American parents as children but live without citizenship — often the result of failure to fill out a single form at the time of their adoption.

Two members of Congress are looking to finally grant these undocumented adoptees citizenship. On Tuesday, Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Rob Woodall, R-Ga., are planning to introduce a bill, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019, that would grant citizenship to thousands of foreign-born adult adoptees in the United States.

The bill, which The Intercept obtained a draft of, is the latest attempt to grant status to this population after several failed efforts in recent years and would provide automatic citizenship to foreign-born children lawfully adopted by U.S. families, regardless of when they were adopted or their age. The measure seeks to cover those left out of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which granted automatic citizenship to 140,000 child adoptees, according to the bill’s sponsors, but excluded those ages 18 and over when the law passed. The exemption — a political compromise to get wary Republican members on board — left out tens of thousands of adult adoptees across the U.S., according to the Adoptee Rights Campaign.

“We look forward to the introduction of a bill that provides citizenship for all intercountry adoptees,” said Joy Alessi, director of the Adoptee Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest adoptee advocacy group. “We’ve waited a long time for it, and our adoptees are struggling without the citizenship protections that they should have had since childhood.”

The problem has festered in small part thanks to widespread incompetence and mismanagement within a number of agencies at the federal and state levels. An Intercept investigation published last August found a decadeslong pattern of, among other issues, a woeful lack of interagency communication between the U.S. State Department and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. (A USCIS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the new bill.)

The Intercept investigation, based on an analysis of hundreds of public documents and the accounts of more than 25 people adopted by U.S. citizens as children but who remain without citizenship, centered on the harrowing story of Mauricio Cappelli, a 39-year-old adoptee raised in Wisconsin before he was deported back to Costa Rica for the second time in March 2018.

The bill would allow adoptees like Cappelli, who currently reside outside the United States, to receive citizenship upon entry to the U.S., pending a background check and the resolution of any outstanding crimes on their record.

“This could give me the chance to continue my life. I want to go home to Wisconsin. This is not my home.”

For Cappelli, who speaks virtually no Spanish and has been unable to find steady employment in San José, the Costa Rican capital, over the last year, the bill marks the potential end of what he says has been a “nightmarish period” of his life.

“This could give me the chance to continue my life,” said Cappelli, in a phone call from the small Costa Rican apartment outside San José where he’s lived for the last several months. “I want to go home to Wisconsin. This is not my home.”

Cappelli’s supporters echoed his guarded hope. “It would be life-changing for Mauricio,” said his father, Kurt Cappelli. “But I remain cautiously optimistic right now given how hard I know this legislative process is.”

The bill faces a better political landscape than in recent years because of a large House Democratic majority — including a small, but not insignificant number of committed Republicans on board — but still faces an uphill climb in the Republican-held Senate where it may be framed as an immigration bill, according to two Democratic aides who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Smith and Woodall, for their part, are undaunted. “By closing an existing loophole in the Child Citizenship Act, this bill will extend citizenship to thousands of foreign-born adoptive children who have joined their families here in the United States,” Smith in a statement to The Intercept. “Unfortunately, not all adoptees were able to benefit from the Child Citizenship Act when it originally passed, as it was limited to apply only to minors age 18 and under. Adopted individuals should not be treated as second-class citizens just because they happened to be the wrong age when the Child Citizenship Act became law.”

Woodall added, “Our legislation will provide a solution to close this loophole and grant the adoptees the right to citizenship they deserve.”

“Adopted individuals should not be treated as second-class citizens just because they happened to be the wrong age when the Child Citizenship Act became law.”

Still, not everyone adopted by American parents but living in the U.S. without citizenship will find relief in the bill. Adoptees brought to the U.S. as young children on visitor visas and whose parents never followed the proper procedures to obtain a green card for their child are crucially excluded. It is unclear how many individuals fall into this group; the State Department does not track visitor visas given to children who may end up in adoption. Legally speaking, these individuals are considered visa-overstays, a crime that in some cases carries a lifetime ban on re-entering the country.

The exclusion struck a chord in the close-knit adoptee community. Adoptee rights organizations differed on the omission, with some praising any measure of progress on the issue and others chastising Congress for not doing more to protect these individuals — especially with the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies.

In some conservative-led states, who closely follow the White House’s lead on immigration, undocumented adoptees have been unable to renew their driver’s licenses, claim Social Security, or receive health care, among other limitations, according to Alessi of the Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Among those excluded from the bill is Sara, an undocumented adoptee and activist living in California, who requested that The Intercept not use her real name. Sara was adopted from an orphanage in Iran in early 1972. She entered the country in September 1973 on a six-month tourist visa. Her adoptive parents, both U.S. citizens, finalized her adoption in the United States in June 1974.

Sara first discovered that she is not a citizen at 38 when she applied for a passport. Like Cappelli, she had a birth certificate and Social Security card, yet her application was denied. When she inquired further, USCIS informed her that her adoptive parents had never filed a certificate of citizenship — known as the N-600 form — when she was a minor, and that consequently, she was not a citizen. She filed the form in February 2008 but was denied citizenship that October. The Intercept first revealed Sara’s story in last year’s investigation.

“This bill was my last shred of hope,” Sara told The Intercept. “I no longer have hope. I am stateless.”

When asked about the exclusion, a spokesperson for Smith’s office said the language came about through “conversations with adoptee groups and hearing directly from them on what they wanted us to focus on.”

The spokesperson added, “This is a fix for adoptees who should be rightfully American citizens.”

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