By ELIZABETH ZAVALA
ALEDO — Lorrie Whiteley McMillan is spending another holiday season without her brother Robin Whiteley.
She is praying that the family’s immigration nightmare will end soon and that Whiteley can come home to Texas — the only home he knows.
McMillan, 43, was 8 when her parents brought home the baby they named Robin. Now, because of missteps the parents made in the complicated international adoption process — and bad decisions on his part — Whiteley, 35, has been deported to Mexico.
"He is not an undocumented immigrant," McMillan said. "He did not falsify any documents. He didn’t sneak over here. He is an American."
Her brother is a man without a country.
'Your normal, crazy kid’
In 1974, a midwife in El Paso placed a day-old baby in the arms of Lora and Royce Whiteley of Fort Worth. Six years later, while living in Woodville, they officially adopted Robin.
The Whiteleys, who had six children, moved to Lufkin in 1984.
McMillan, who was also born in Mexico and was adopted as an infant by the Whiteleys, recalls her little brother as most big sisters would — a boy who bothered and teased her. But she looked after him.
"I always felt very protective of Robin," McMillan said. "He was like my own baby doll. I took care of my little brother."
As he grew up, Whiteley was athletic and into boxing in Lufkin, she said. "He was just your normal, crazy kid and a typical teen."
But even Whiteley admits that he made bad decisions. State criminal records show that he had some misdemeanor convictions, and he went to state prison for a felony drug conviction.
When the time came for his release from prison in 2002, he fell down the immigration rabbit hole.
Neither the United States nor Mexico has a record of his birth, said his lawyer, Andres Lopez of McAllen. And his parents had pursued legal residency for him but not citizenship.
Lacking both a birth certificate and naturalization papers, Whiteley, who doesn’t speak Spanish, was deported to Mexico on the assumption that it was his country of origin, Lopez said. He now lives as an undocumented immigrant in a one-room cinder-block apartment in Reynosa, Mexico.
Since his deportation, Whiteley has illegally entered the U.S. twice to see his children, which has not helped his case. He has vowed that the next time he comes back, it will be as a citizen.
"We have been back and forth with immigration over the adoption," Lora Whiteley, 74, said by phone from Lufkin. Each time progress was made on getting proper documentation for Whiteley, the immigration laws changed, she said.
The laws on immigration and foreign adoptions are complicated, said Heidi Cox, executive vice president and general counsel for the Gladney Center in Fort Worth, which has provided foreign and domestic adoption services for more than 100 years.
"Your Texas adoption will establish that you are the parent, but not that the child is a citizen," she said. "The adoption decree does not establish citizenship [but only] the legal parent-child relationship."
Lopez said Whiteley’s parents received bad advice and did not pursue citizenship for him.
"They did what they were told, but it wasn’t what they needed," said Lopez, who meets weekly with his client in Mexico. He is working on an appeal on Whiteley’s behalf.
Whiteley spends his days in his one-room apartment in Reynosa, about 11 miles from McAllen, where he knew no one before he arrived. He has a bed, a television, a DVD player, a hot plate to warm food, and an American cellphone so he can talk to his family. He bathes with cold water out of a 5-gallon bucket, the same one he uses to hand-wash his clothes. He goes to a local store to use the restroom, he said.
"My parents send me money every week to help me try and survive," Whiteley said.
He can’t work in Mexico because he doesn’t have proper documents, and if caught working illegally, he would be deported. "But to where? I’d have an issue in any country," he said.
Whiteley’s wife and children have moved from Lufkin to Mission in the Rio Grande Valley to be close enough to cross over and visit their husband and father.
"I committed a crime. I deserved to go to jail at the time, and I believe I paid for that," he said. "But I didn’t deserve to be taken away from the only country I’ve ever known in my life" for a paperwork mistake.
Working on his case
McMillan, a mother of two, was a student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock when her parents took her to Houston so she could take the citizenship oath.
McMillan and her mother have spent countless hours writing to politicians and whoever else they think might help with Whiteley’s case. They hope that Congress will enact the Foreign Adopted Children’s Equality Act, which would recognize that internationally adopted children of American citizens deserve to be treated as children of American citizens, not as immigrants.
The act would apply the same citizenship process to adopted children as that accorded to children born abroad to American citizens, according to the advocacy group Equality for Adopted Children.
Mother and daughter hope that Whiteley’s citizenship can be retroactive to the date he was adopted.
"All foreign children get equality, the same rights as children born here," McMillan said.
Lora Whiteley is focused on getting her son back home. She, too, is hopeful that the act will pass.
"It is a nightmare. I know he made a mistake, but my purpose is to help Robin, and help everybody else" in the same situation, she said.