GIRL WITH A COUNTRY
–– It took 15 years and the help of a savvy, compassionate immigration official, but the girl who arrived from Guatemala as a toddler to an eager U.S. couple is now an American citizen.
Alexandra ''Allie'' Mulvihill, 17, of Allentown took her citizenship oath during a noon swearing-in ceremony Monday as her parents and sister watched.
''It's really hard to explain, the feeling of being really happy,'' said Allie, quiet all day until the ceremony, when she cried in her sobbing parents' arms.
''This is such a sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, bittersweet, sweet day,'' said her mother Lori, who with her now ex-husband, Scott, brought Allie home in 1994 after working with an adoption agency for a year.
Scott said: ''It's like the end of the world's longest boxing match.''
The road to U.S. citizenship was plagued by painful delays, lost paperwork and lengthy visits to the immigration office, where caseworkers often told the couple they needed additional paperwork -- and more money.
Allie's case was complicated by questions about the validity of the adoption, amid suspicions she was stolen as part of a baby-trafficking operation.
Before the ceremony, Allie sat alone, calm and peaceful in a chair in one of the first five rows reserved for new citizens in the Philadelphia office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Lori and Allie's sister Olivia, 13, sat several rows back while Scott videotaped and photographed Allie.
After ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' a USCIS officer asked everyone to stand when their country of origin was called. Next, the 57 people from 37 countries gave an oath of allegiance to the United States.
Unexpectedly, Karen FitzGerald, USCIS regional director, announced there was a special girl in the room, Alexandra Mulvihill. She asked Allie to stand.
''We're sorry it took so long to get to this place,'' FitzGerald said, her voice breaking with emotion as she caught sight of Scott, who had tears running down his face. ''But congratulations.''
The normally stoic Allie began to cry. Lori's cries seemed to come from deep inside.
In the early 1990s, the Mulvihills learned Adoptions International had found them a little girl. Her name was Mariela. The girl with the big brown eyes captivated the couple.
The Guatemalan government approved the adoption in October 1993, but the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala was suspicious. Document fraud was rampant at that time, and a DNA test was not required to determine if the woman giving up the baby was the birth mother. (It is now). Based on those and other concerns, the U.S. Embassy denied Mariela's visa.
Frantic, the Mulvihills sought and received help from the U.S. attorney general's office in the form of an emergency two-year humanitarian visa.
But the issue of whether Allie was stolen was never resolved, and once the temporary visa expired, the Mulvihills had to prove the birth mother had willingly given her up. Immigration officials repeatedly denied the Mulvihills' requests to grant Allie permanent status. The couple struggled to get the adoption recognized, but did not at first hire an attorney to help them.
For Allie, who arrived in this country on Aug. 23, 1994, to ecstatic parents, life for years was pretty normal. School at Allen High was good, she had friends, she was close with her younger sister.
As she approached her 16th birthday, though, the stakes grew high. If she weren't adopted before she turned 17, she could never be adopted, according to federal immigration laws. It would have been almost impossible for her to get legal residency.
In June 2008, The Morning Call ran a story on Allie's situation. National and more local media attention followed. It caught the attention of FitzGerald, who that same month became USCIS regional director. She culled Allie's file, noted the complicating factors and reached out to the family.
''Her options were pretty limited,'' FitzGerald said. ''The issue was always the adoption in Guatemala.''