exposing the dark side of adoption
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Citizenship Catch 22 lands man in country he's never known



REYNOSA — It wasn’t until the third grade that Robin Whiteley realized something separated him from the rest of his family.

Classmates at his East Texas elementary school began taunting him about his brown skin — several shades darker than that of his fair-skinned siblings.

"They called me a Mexican," he said. "It was the first time I had heard that in my life. I remember going home and asking my mom, ‘What’s a Mexican?’"

Now, 35 years old and a bear of a man, the question still plagues him.

Adopted by an American family the day after his birth in Ciudad Juarez, Chih., Whiteley has only been to Mexico on short trips to Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey. He doesn’t speak the language. He doesn’t know anyone there.

But according to the U.S. government, he remains to this day a Mexican national with no legal right to be in the United States.

A 2000 arrest on drug possession charges set off a nightmare scenario that landed him first in prison, then in deportation proceedings and eventually in a country he has never known.

Now separated from his friends, his parents and his children, Whiteley is one of several people each year who find themselves lost in the byzantine U.S. immigration system — a maze of complicated, overlapping laws that leave no easy recourse once mistakes are made.

From U.S. citizens accidentally deported and barred from re-entering the country to people like Whiteley, who have lived their whole lives knowing no other home, it’s easy to make fateful and disastrous decisions that can complicate their lives for years.

"The immigration laws in this country are too complex," said Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen-based immigration attorney. "If they were more user-friendly, more people would be able to figure them out and avoid mistakes that can ruin their chances forever."

Reynosa’s main plaza — less than a mile from the international bridge — is a bustling estuary where people from all walks of city life cross paths.

Sharply dressed bureaucrats pace purposefully past beggars and street vendors during working hours, while police and drug gangs prowl the concrete square once night falls.

Whiteley washed up here after his most recent deportation and, for the past three months, has called this crowded heart of the city his home.

By day, he begs for whatever food he can muster and bathes under a nearby water spigot. Without any proof of Mexican citizenship, he can’t legally find a job. And without a valid birth certificate from that country, he can’t prove citizenship there.

"I’m literally a man without a country," he said.

He spends his nights sleeping on a park bench and obsessively poring over a folder filled with documents spelling out his life in the United States.

A U.S. birth certificate drafted as part of his adoption process, copies of his Texas driver’s license and Social Security card, a diploma from his elementary school graduation — all evidence, he says, that he has a legitimate claim to citizenship.

But with a prison history behind him and a body covered in tattoos to show for it, people typically stop listening to his story when they realize he has a criminal past.

"In the end, this was my fault," he said. "I should have pushed through earlier and gotten my citizenship. I committed a crime, and I paid that price.

"But now, I feel like I’m still being punished."

So how did things go so wrong?

Lora Whiteley adopted the child she would eventually name Robin on Jan. 14, 1974, from an El Paso-based midwife who had delivered him a day before.

While state adoption records listed his birthplace as Ciudad Juarez — across the Rio Grande from the West Texas city — Lora claims the government based that determination on her own statements rather than any outside knowledge.

"If a midwife delivered the baby, I had just assumed that meant it was born in Mexico," she said. "I could have assumed wrong."

To this date, she has no idea exactly where or to whom her adopted son was born.

The family — then living in Fort Worth — first attempted to file for Robin Whiteley’s citizenship in 1987 but found the system complicated and cumbersome. Immigration authorities would advise them to file one form, only to turn around and tell them that it was the wrong one and they needed to fill out another.

Because of their modest means, hiring an attorney to guide them through the process was out of the question.

"We tried to do what we could," Robin Whiteley said. "But every time my mom would do something, they would turn around and tell her to do something else."

So when President Ronald Reagan’s administration implemented an amnesty program for illegal immigrants in the late ‘80s, they decided that route might provide an easier path.

"I got my green card and legal residency," Robin Whiteley said. "After that, nothing was ever said about it. I went through life and grew up just like anybody else."

It wasn’t until his arrest for marijuana possession in 2000 outside of Lufkin that the issue reared its head again. Two months into his prison stint, the government told him his visa had been revoked and he would be deported upon his release.

Less than two years later, he was on a bus to the border — headed back to a birthplace he had only known on paper.

"I had always thought of myself as a U.S. citizen," he said. "I just didn’t realize they could just take away your stuff like that."

It happens more frequently than he imagined.

Since the administration of President George W. Bush, the United States has tightened security along the nation’s southern border in a drive to crack down on illegal immigration.

The government has mistakenly locked up, deported or denied entry to dozens of lawful U.S. citizens based on mere suspicion. In 2007, the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice found 322 people with claims to citizenship detained in 13 of the nation’s immigration prisons.

Many of those cases involve people with clearer-cut cases than Robin Whiteley’s.

In March 2006, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents confiscated the passport, Social Security card and Texas driver’s license of Ricardo Martinez as he tried to enter the United States near Laredo.

Although he was born in 1973 at McAllen General Hospital and had the records to prove it, federal authorities questioned him for hours and threatened him with prison time until he signed a confession saying he was born in a tiny community in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

"Scared of the threats and believing he had no other option, Mr. Martinez signed the papers," his attorney Lisa Brodyaga said in a lawsuit Martinez’s family has since brought against the agency.

Martinez, who doesn’t speak English due to living most of his life in Mexico, eventually convinced authorities months later of his citizenship and was able to rejoin his family in Mercedes. But the question of what caused the problem in the first place remains unanswered.

Trinidad Castro and her two grown daughters encountered a similar problem just last month at a port of entry in Brownsville.

Castro — a legal resident at the time — delivered both of her daughters in the city with the aid of a midwife but quickly moved them back to her home south of the border.

When it came time to register the girls for school, she obtained Mexican birth certificates for them that established their birthplace as Matamoros — an admittedly improper move under Mexican law that should not have affected their U.S. citizenship status, Brodyaga said.

Like many Valley residents, the women spent their lives frequently traveling back and forth across the border without issue until Aug. 24, when a CBP agent questioned the fact that one of her daughters’ identification documents indicated she had been delivered by a midwife.

All three were held and questioned for 11 hours, until Castro signed a confession she now describes as false stating that her daughters had actually been born in Mexico.

"(This) case is not an isolated instance, but a window into the cases of dozens, if not hundreds, of similarly situated persons," said Brodyaga, who is also representing the Castro women, in court filings.

Perhaps the greatest misfortune in cases like that of Martinez, the Castros and Robin Whiteley lies in that each likely could have avoided the brushes with immigration authorities were it not for one or two wrong turns made for no other reason than they didn’t know any better.

It could take years to undo those mistakes.

It’s likely Martinez never would have run into trouble had he brought only one birth certificate — instead of two different ones — while making a fateful crossing in Nogales, Ariz.

Seeking only to enroll her children in school, Castro obtained falsified Mexican birth certificates that first brought suspicion on her and her family. Then, she signed her purported false confession believing it to be the only way to end the 11-hour ordeal she and her daughters had been put through at the bridge.

And with the aid of a competent attorney, Robin Whiteley, too, could have had a decent chance of fighting off his first deportation order.

Instead, he has continued to make decisions — like sneaking back into the country illegally — that haven’t done anything to help his case. But what else can he do?, he asks.

"I’ve got two small kids and two older kids," he said. "They need me. It’s just too much to be away and not be able to see or provide for them."

After his first deportation in 2002, he waited a few hours and walked back across the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. Using a friend’s name and a lie that he had lost his wallet at a club the night before, he successfully re-entered the country, where he resumed his life, got married and had two more children before being discovered in 2005 at a work site in Ohio.

Since then, authorities have forcibly returned him to Mexico two more times.

The latest, just last year, came with a felony conviction of illegal re-entry — a virtual death sentence for any legal effort to return to the United States.

He has crossed back and forth a few times since, but has decided living on the wrong side of the law is no longer worth it. Now, he’s determined to return to the United States the right way — no matter how grim his chances.

"I realize I’m not a poster boy for what people would want an immigrant to be," he said. "But I’ve never considered myself an immigrant.

"I just need one person to listen."

2009 Sep 12