RP mom's outrage spurs immigration battle

Date: 2004-03-30

RP mom's outrage spurs immigration battle
Family discovers adopted son illegally came to U.S. at age 4 from Mexico
March 30, 2004
By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sue Piland wasn't planning on adding to her family, already complete with two teenage boys preparing to leave the nest. Then she got a call from a friend who knew a sweet, strong-willed boy who needed a safe and loving home.

The 40-something Rohnert Park mom persuaded her husband they should adopt Vicente, an 8-year-old boy whom the state had removed from his mother's custody.

After meeting Vicente in January 1999, he moved in within a month and the adoption became final in October 1999.

A year later, Piland received some shocking news when she applied for a Social Security number for Vicente: although she had legally adopted her son, who was born in Mexico, he wasn't a lawful U.S. citizen.

"Even though he was my child, he could be deported at any time," Piland said, stunned at what she calls an appalling disconnect in the system that cares for neglected, abused and abandoned children.

The issue, which still isn't resolved four years later, set Piland on a mission to make sure other adoptive parents have more information and legal resources than she and Vicente did.

Her chronicles convinced Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, to introduce legislation that would require the state to provide an immigration attorney for undocumented dependents of the court and force adoption agencies to disclose a child's immigration status to potential parents.

Assembly Bill 1895 was passed last week by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, minus the notification provision over concerns it could deter prospective parents. It heads to the Appropriations Committee next month.

Nation and Piland hope to revive the notification clause later.

"Like most people, I was under the assumption that when you adopt a child not born in this country, they become citizens," Piland said. "They're not. They're not legal, they have no legal rights."

Vicente, now 13, has a one-year visa and Piland is working on getting him a green card. A missing document from the county postponed action on getting Vicente permanent legal status, which had been expected last week.

Piland's outrage and energy for the cause impressed Nation, whose office estimated at least 400 and perhaps 1,000 immigrant children are in similar situations statewide.

"This was overlooked until you had someone like Susan Piland, who really did something admirable here," Nation said. "She's jumped through I don't know how many hoops, and instead of saying, 'I got mine, I'm OK,' she said, 'This isn't right.'

"While immigration is typically a federal issue, state officials have some jurisdiction when a child becomes a dependent of the court.

Separate federal bills that would provide an immigration lawyer and grant citizenship to dependents of the court have been proposed, but Nation said they will likely die amid immigration politics.

Piland adopted Vicente through the state Department of Social Services and received a California birth certificate that said he was born in Mexico. There was no indication Vicente had entered the United States illegally with his family when he was 4.

Current law does not require adoption agencies to inform prospective parents of a child's immigration status.

At age 6, Vicente became a dependent of the state and entered the foster care system, bouncing from home to home for two years until landing with the Pilands.

Since then, Piland has become something of an expert on immigration law who doesn't take "no" for an answer from bureaucrats.

"It's been three years of phone calls and attorneys fees," she said. "The whole ordeal is horrific. The hoops I had to jump through were unbelievable. You call one person and they give you two more people to call. I was just exhausted, I couldn't get an answer."

Most lawyers told her the same thing: after having Vicente in her custody for two years -- living under the fear that he remained undocumented -- she could apply for an interview with U.S. immigration officials in Mexico. Getting an interview could take one to two years.

Then she would be required to return Vicente to Mexico to ask permission from U.S. officials to allow Vicente to return to the United States.

"I refused to take him back," Piland said, scared that once there, authorities wouldn't let him return. "I continued to knock on doors and make phone calls."

Maureen McSorley, Vicente's immigration attorney, said the maze of county, state and federal bureaucracy on immigration and adoption issues makes legal counsel a necessity.

"A lot of adoptive parents don't know to ask the right questions. It's crucial these adoptive parents be given notice" of a child's immigration status, she said. "You shouldn't have to sign a contract unless you're given all the material facts. No one ever says they're not legal."

Nation hopes to add the notification provision back to the bill in the state Senate, comparing it to current law that requires adoptive parents be advised of a child's medical history.

Piland estimates she has spent $3,000 to $5,000 in legal fees since 1999, not including McSorley's legal counsel, which Sonoma County provides for Vicente.

Funds to provide immigration attorneys for children who have become dependents of the court may be available from existing federal programs, Nation said, although it has not been determined how much the law could cost.

Some counties, such as Los Angeles, where this is more common, already provide an immigration lawyer out of their own budgets, he said.

Piland said she hopes to see this bill become law in California, and then wants to seek similar legislation in other border states. She has started a Web site, www.suecares.com, that tells her story and offers answers and support to others.

"My goal is that the federal government, when a child is made a dependent of the court and parental rights have been terminated, automatically give the child permanent legal residence," she said. "Then if the child is adopted, they would get citizenship."

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at (707)521-5205 or lcarter@pressdemocrat.com.

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