Girl with No Country
Morning Call, The (Allentown, PA)
** Unusual case leaves Allentown teen in immigration limbo for 14 years
Author: Margie Peterson and Arlene Mart¡nez Of The Morning Call
Fifteen-year-old Allie Mulvihill has a mom, a dad, a sister, two yappy dogs, and a home in West Allentown. But she has no country.
The Central Catholic freshman's quest for American citizenship has been stymied since she was adopted from Guatemala by Lori and Scott Mulvihill 14 years ago.
At the core of their struggle is the question of whether, unknown to the Mulvihills, Allie might have been stolen from her biological family and given up for adoption by a woman posing as her birth mother in a baby-trafficking scheme.
At the heart of it are the hopes and dreams of a teenager with no citizenship or green card, who can't get a driver's license when she turns 16 in two months and can't work legally or travel abroad. Unless her case gets resolved, she won't be eligible for financial aid when she goes to college and won't be allowed to vote when she turns 18.
"She was allowed to enter this country legally," Lori Mulvihill said. "She was allowed to become part of our family. Somebody needs to step up and say, "Let's get this done."'
For a long time, Allie's case appeared unique. But in recent months, baby trafficking allegations directed at the same people who aided in Allie's adoption in Guatemala have put more children waiting to be adopted by American parents into legal limbo.
Allie is aware of her Guatemalan heritage but until now she's lived a typical American life.
Like teenage girls across America, Allie goes to high school football games for the social life, arriving home with no idea of the score. She listens to hip-hop music, loves volleyball and Broadway plays. With her father and younger sister, Olivia, she once rode the Hydra roller coaster at Dorney Park 14 times in a row without throwing up.
But unlike a lot of kids her age, when Allie turns 16 on Aug. 18, she won't be able to get behind the wheel when her father picks her up at Central Catholic in his white Mustang with blue striping.
"People were saying how next year I'm going to be driving it," Allie said. But they don't know I'm not a citizen, so I can't."
She says she'd also love to get a job "so I can start making my own money and be able to hang out with my friends and stuff."
If allowed to work legally, she could start saving for her dream car: a pink convertible.
To add to her problems, Allie is up against a deadline. She has to be readopted by her 16th birthday, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Adoption experts say if she isn't, she could be in danger of deportation.
A baby named Mariela
Fifteen years ago, after months of waiting, Lori and Scott Mulvihill got word that Adoptions International had found them a child. The now defunct agency, based in New Jersey and Florida, sent them photos and information about a brown-eyed toddler named Mariela.
On Aug. 24, 1993, U.S. Embassy officials interviewed the woman who said she was Mariela's birth mother. She agreed to give up her parental rights to the Mulvihills. In October, the government of Guatemala approved the adoption.
Shortly before Christmas, the Mulvihills learned that the U.S. Embassy would not issue Mariela a visa to come to the United States. An embassy official told them of suspicions that the woman who gave up Mariela was not her real birth mother. The embassy was concerned about baby trafficking -- the buying and selling of children -- aided by rampant document fraud in Guatemala, which has one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America. The Mulvihills were told they would have to get the birth mother to take a DNA test.
But by then, the woman had left Guatemala City and the Mulvihills' lawyer in Guatemala, Sandra Gonzalez, said she searched but couldn't locate her in the country of about 10 million people.
Asked in February 1994 why embassy officials hadn't required the DNA test when they interviewed the birth mother the previous August, Gary Sheaffer, then-spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, told The Morning Call that embassy officials didn't want to add to the Mulvihills' expenses unless it was necessary.
The woman who gave up Mariela was suspicious, according to embassy officials, in part because she hadn't registered the baby until 11 months after her birth. The Mulvihills' adoption agency argued that delayed birth registration was common among poor Guatemalan women because the fee was about $25, approximately what they would have made in a month.There were also red flags in the birth mother's identification papers.
The Mulvihills asked embassy officials if there was any evidence that someone was looking for a baby who fit Mariela's description. They were told, no.
"They told us from day one that the burden is not on them to prove what they are saying is true," Lori Mulvihill said. "The burden is on us to prove it wasn't true."
If the Mulvihills had abandoned Mariela, she would have been put in an orphanage, Lori Mulvihill said.
With no resolution in sight, the Mulvihills pleaded their case in the media and to then-U.S. Rep. Paul McHale, D-15th District, who sought help from then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. With Reno's intervention, the baby came to the United States on two-year humanitarian parole, a device used in rare cases to handle emergencies.
On Aug. 23, 1994, amid rock star-like fanfare, 2-year-old Mariela arrived at the Philadelphia airport, escorted by Clifford Phillips, an American citizen who worked with lawyer Sandra Gonzalez on adoptions in Guatemala. The Mulvihills took Mariela to their twin home in Allentown's West End and she became Alexandra.
Thirteen years later, Phillips and Gonzalez were under investigation for baby trafficking in Guatemala.
Dealing with INS
Since 2001, citizenship is automatic for foreign children adopted by Americans. But it was different in the 1990s.
In 1996, the Mulvihills went to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Philadelphia to find out how to get their daughter citizenship.
For the next five years, Lori Mulvihill, an at-home mom and Scott Mulvihill, a freelance television editor, dealt with INS bureaucracy. They were repeatedly given the wrong forms to fill out, they said. In May 2001, the INS denied Allie citizenship.
The Mulvihills sought help from then-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey's office, McHale, who was working for the Office of Homeland Security, other members of Congress, adoption groups and the State Department. In Feb. 2005, they took their case to the offices of Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District.
Finally, on March 22, 2005, the couple had a meeting with Donald J. Monica, then-district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Philadelphia, which was the new name for the post-Sept. 11 reorganized INS.
The Mulvihills said Monica told them Allie would be granted citizenship if they went to Guatemala, found the birth mother, got her to take a DNA test and the DNA matched Allie's.
"We said, "OK, what's our other option,"' Lori recalls. "He said, "You have no other option."'
"At this point, I started screaming," Lori recalls. "I said, "That's impossible."'
Monica, through USCIS spokesman Shawn Saucier, declined to be interviewed. But Saucier said the Mulvihill's case was complex and that the family would have benefited from legal advice.
"It's a very difficult situation," Saucier said. "It would be great if we could figure out some way to do this."
In 1998 -- four years after the State Department denied Allie a visa -- the U.S. government made DNA tests mandatory for Guatemalan birth mothers who were offering their children for adoption. In 2007, it began requiring a second DNA test at the end of the adoption process.
Since 2003, USCIS has received 19,440 DNA test results and less than one-half of 1 percent were not a match between the child and the person claiming to be the birth parent.
After getting permission from the Mulvihills to talk about their case, representatives of Specter's office and Dent's office said they've advised the couple to get a lawyer and readopt Allie through the Pennsylvania courts as the best avenue to legal status.
Saucier agreed. Since Guatemala approved Allie's adoption but the State Department did not recognize it, Saucier said, "a legal adoption in the States would establish a legal relationship."
He challenged the Mulvihills' version of their dealings with U.S. immigration officials. "We have spent a lot of time and resources and expertise trying to assist the Mulvihills … to strengthen their application," Saucier said. "What they need to do is move forward."
But given their past experiences, the Mulvihills say they are wary of what could be a drawn out process of readopting Allie and applying for legal residency and then citizenship. Lori Mulvihill said she asked Specter's staff in 2006 if taking those steps would guarantee citizenship and was told no.
The Mulvihills divorced in 2006 but remain united in their attempts to get Allie citizenship.
"This child was allowed to come into our family with the aid of people who were highly regarded in our government," Lori Mulvihill said. "We didn't think we'd need an immigration lawyer because we had done everything by the book."
"What could [the immigration agency] possibly tell our legal attorney that they couldn't tell us?" she asked.
Lori Mulvihill said she contacted some family law attorneys who said she needed an immigration lawyer. An immigration lawyer advised her to contact a family law attorney, she said.
That's not surprising, according to Irene Steffas, a Marietta, Ga., attorney who specializes in intercountry adoptions. She said there aren't many lawyers who work on tricky international adoption cases.
"This is not a common area of immigration practice, and it's easy to see why the immigration officers, examiners at the Philadelphia office, might not have understood how to move this case forward," Steffas said.
Steffas was sympathetic to the family but agreed with Saucier that the Mulvihills should have hired a lawyer early on.
"They should have figured out after two trips driving an hour each way that it would have been cheaper to hire an attorney," Steffas said. "This is not a simple area of adoption."
Steffas also agreed that the Mulvihills need to readopt Allie in Pennsylvania. "Step 2 is that they have to get her a green card," she said. Then they can apply for citizenship.
Steffas said attorney's and USCIS fees would probably total less than $10,000.
"They have to finalize the adoption before her 16th birthday," Steffas said. A child has to be under 16 to fit USCIS's definition of an orphan.
Adoption home raided
Concerns about baby trafficking persist in Guatemala, and they're heightened by the sheer numbers of children being adopted abroad -- more than 23,700 have gone to U.S. homes since 2000. Until recently, Americans adopted more children from Guatemala than from any other country except China.
Smarting from criticism by the United States and groups like UNICEF, Guatemala in 2007 approved the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international treaty that requires uniform procedures for international adoptions. With new-found zeal, Guatemalan authorities began cracking down on the $100 million adoption industry.
Last August, they raided an adoption home called Casa Quivira in the city of Antigua on suspicions that it was engaging in baby trafficking. Casa Quivira was run by Phillips and his wife, Gonzalez, who worked on Allie's adoption 15 years ago.
Interviewed by phone in February, the Guatemalan judge who was then overseeing the investigation, said that several women whose children had been stolen went to Casa Quivira to see if any at the home were theirs. None was, according to Judge Roxana Maribel Mena. "There's no proof that even one child was stolen," she said.
But in March, two Guatemalan attorneys retained by Casa Quivira were charged with fraud and human trafficking. Prosecutors also obtained an arrest warrant for Phillips.
The prosecutors said they uncovered evidence of stolen identities, at least one case of illegal payments to a birth mother, and a birth mother who was mentally ill and incapable of giving consent, according to Associated Press reports.
In the case of a child named Luciany, who is growing up with her adoptive parents in Indiana, prosecutors said they discovered that her married birth mother had created a second identity as a single woman to give up the child for adoption without having to go before a judge. Prosecutors believe many of the birth mothers using false identification papers were trying to circumvent laws that require husbands and grandparents to relinquish their rights to the child.
At least 10 Casa Quivira children had gone to American parents. If prosecutors can prove fraud, they could invalidate an adoption and try to recover the child from the U.S. family.
Phillips and Gonzalez have denied wrongdoing.
In May, the Guatemalan attorney general put on hold all of Guatemala's 2,286 pending adoption cases to give authorities time to investigate, the Associated Press reported. He later annulled 15 of those adoptions by American couples, saying he found evidence of fraud or other irregularities. More annulments are expected
The allegations against Phillips and Gonzalez shocked the Mulvihills, who said their dealings with them 14 years ago appeared legitimate. They hope the allegations won't hurt Allie's chances for citizenship.
"Lori and I are so sick of the "he said, she said, did you, didn't you,"' Scott Mulvihill said. "The bottom line is the government has abandoned us on this whole situation."
But Allie hasn't abandoned her American dreams.
For a girl without a country, she has managed to hold on to patriotism.
Asked what citizenship meant to her, Allie mentioned the right to vote and get a driver's license. But she also pointed to the less tangible, with an optimism bred in Americans.
"It means you are part of a whole," she said. "Any little thing that one person does, like vote, could change the world."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
At stake: Unless her case is resolved, Allie can't get a driver's license when she turns 16, work legally, travel abroad, get financial aid for college or vote.
Key events in Allie's adoption process:
October 1993: Guatemala approves adoption for Scott and Lori Mulvihill.
December 1993: U.S. Embassy denies the Mulvihills' baby a visa because of suspicion of baby trafficking.
Aug. 23, 1994: With then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's intervention, the Mulvihills' baby arrives in the United States on two-year humanitarian parole.
1996: The Mulvihills first try to apply for citizenship for Allie.
May 2001: The Immigration and Naturalization Service denies Allie citizenship.
March 22, 2005: The Mulvihills meet with director of immigration services in Philadelphia and are told citizenship would be granted if they get DNA from Allie's birth mother.
2007: Guatemala approves a treaty requiring uniform procedures for international adoptions.
August 2007: Guatemalan police raid adoption home run by two people who worked on Allie's adoption; arrests follow.
May 2008: Guatemalan attorney general puts 2,286 pending adoptions on hold as authorities investigate.
Aug. 18, 2008: Allie turns 16 and will no longer be considered an orphan by immigration services.
**1. Allie in 1994
**2. ALLIE MULVIHILL, 15, stands in the kitchen of her Allentown home. She'll be a sophomore at Central Catholic High School in the fall. Her American parents adopted her from Guatemala in 1994.
**3. ALLIE MULVIHILL (third from left) sits with her sister, Olivia, 11, mother, Lori, father, Scott, and their dogs in the basement of their Allentown home.
Above, Allie, in foster care in Guatemala, opens a present from the Mulvihills.
4 Photos by Unknown, Special to The Morning Call and Kathleen X. Cook The Morning Call