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Foreign adoptees are living in legal limbo


Foreign adoptees are living in legal limbo

Immigration status unresolved before children's arrival

By Leslie Berestein and David Hasemyer


October 20, 2008

Almost 17 years after Nick and Alice Zizzo adopted a brown-eyed, chubby-cheeked baby girl through San Diego County's child welfare system, she came home one day bubbling that her high school choir was going to Europe.

The Rancho San Diego couple helped their daughter, Stephanie, apply for a passport in fall 2006, then waited for it to arrive. What they received instead was a piece of stupefying news from the federal government: Stephanie wasn't a U.S. citizen. She wasn't even in the country legally.

County officials have acknowledged putting

Stephanie Zizzo and at least four other adoptees born in other countries, including Mexico and Kenya

, in legal limbo by not resolving their immigration status before adoption.

In the year and a half since the cases began to surface, the county has updated its policies to require that a child's legal residency be established before they leave the system. But no one knows how many children were adopted without it, or what they'll face trying to stay in the only country they've known.

“After all these years thinking everything was OK, to hear that there were problems was stunning,” said Alice Zizzo, 55, who like her husband is a U.S. citizen.

Stephanie's adoption records indicate she was born in Tijuana in 1989 to a woman believed to be a U.S. citizen. According to the Zizzos, county social workers assured them when the adoption process started five months later that there were no immigration issues.

Adoption is not enough to grant citizenship or legal resident status to children who are in the United States illegally or whose immigration status cannot be proven. Such adoptees are vulnerable to deportation, cannot work legally when grown and, in many states, cannot obtain in-state college tuition.

“Any person who enters the U.S. as a child and does not have documents with which to reside here is in peril of being deported,” said Jan Bejar, an immigration attorney retained by the county to assist families who have filed claims over the issue. “The problem is, once a person is adopted, people think he is a citizen and can't be deported. The hell he can't.”

The county has paid $15,000 for two immigration attorneys to help the five families untangle the mess, along with $37,900 in damages to two families that filed claims, including the Zizzos. More are expected to come forward as their adopted children become adults and seek employment, passports or college admission.

Mary Harris, director of the county's Health and Human Services Agency, said child welfare workers in the 1980s and 1990s might have assumed citizenship was established as part of the adoption process.

“There was not as much attention to or understanding of immigration law at that time,” Harris said. “We are child welfare specialists, not immigration specialists. We are, first and foremost, trying to see that these children are in a stable family environment.”

As unusual as these cases seem, they have happened elsewhere. Los Angeles County officials said they have not encountered the problem, but two Orange County adoptees learned in recent years that their immigration status was in question.

In Sonoma County, Susan Piland applied for a Social Security card for her Mexican-born son eight years ago and was shocked to learn that the boy, adopted through the state a year earlier, was undocumented.

“When you talk to people about this situation, they tell you, 'This can't be right,' ” said Piland, who established the advocacy group SueCares to push for reforms.

Piland said she has received calls from a half-dozen families in her situation, including the parents of an 18-year-old adopted girl who was afraid to report a date rape after learning her status was in question. Piland suspects many other families are unaware they have a problem.

Under a 1990 federal law, dependents of the court – children whose biological parents' rights have been terminated – are eligible for special juvenile immigrant status, which entitles them to become legal permanent residents. However, they lose that privilege once they leave the system, either through emancipation or adoption.

Child welfare workers are not legally required to screen children for immigration status or eligibility under the 1990 law, said Yali Lincroft, a consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group that supports child and family welfare initiatives.

“There is nothing in the books,” Lincroft said. “It almost seems like a no-brainer. If we want them to be adopted, surely it means we want them in the country.”

Piland led an unsuccessful campaign four years ago for state legislation that would have required child welfare officials to ensure children receive legal status before emancipation or adoption. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislation, citing funding reasons. A similar measure is pending in Congress.

A federal law passed in 2000 grants automatic citizenship to most children adopted from abroad, but the law only covers adoptees brought into the country legally or who obtain legal status as minors.

The process becomes far more difficult once they reach adulthood, particularly after they turn 21.

Children adopted in the United States before age 16 may be sponsored by their parents for legal residency until they are 21, but adults must apply for their immigrant visa abroad if they entered the United States illegally, and there are significant risks in leaving the country.

For starters, anyone over 18 who has been in the country illegally for more than a year can be banned from re-entering for 10 years. Adults applying abroad can seek a waiver of unlawful presence, but these are frequently denied.

“Say you have been here for a year or more without permission since you were 18,” said Sally Kinoshita, deputy director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. “Maybe you will get a waiver and get back in. Or you'll get stuck and you can't come back in.”

Piland, who once devised a plan to hide her son from immigration authorities, said she believes child welfare agencies have a moral duty to follow through on the status of children who didn't choose to come here.

“They are in charge of making sure they aren't abused, of getting them a home, of taking care of them,” said Piland, whose son now has a green card. “Isn't making sure they have legal status taking care of them? The court becomes their parent. The immigration decision is made when the court terminates parental rights.”

Most known cases in San Diego County are on their way to being resolved, but it will take some adoptees longer than others to obtain citizenship.

By Stephanie Zizzo's calculation, she'll be eligible to apply Nov. 5, 2012. She received legal status last year, after her family filed a claim against the county. A person must be a legal permanent resident for five years before applying for naturalization.

Stephanie always considered herself American. According to her adoption records, she was born in a Tijuana hospital to a homeless woman who was covered with insect bites, cigarette burns and needle tracks. She spoke only English, leading Mexican authorities to surmise she was a U.S. citizen who had wandered south.

The woman had no identification except for a credit card in the name of a U.S. Marine sergeant who had reported it stolen. Until she was adopted, Stephanie was known only by the last name on the credit card.

Within 12 hours of her birth, the baby and her mother were brought to the San Ysidro border crossing and taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in Chula Vista. There, a social worker noted that a U.S. consular official had certified the mother was a U.S. citizen. But she was deemed mentally ill, and the county took custody of the baby.

The Zizzos, who had already adopted a boy from Mexico with no problems, said they asked county officials if there were any immigration issues before adopting Stephanie when she was 5 months old.

“They kept telling us, 'No, no, everything is OK,' ” Alice Zizzo said.

Even when the family adopted a second baby girl born to the same woman in 1991, this time on U.S. soil, they were not alerted to any questions about Stephanie's nationality.

The Zizzos filed their claims with the county about a year and a half ago, and they have since received county-sponsored legal assistance along with $33,500 in damages.

Stephanie is lucky in that she received her green card last November. Because she was a minor when she applied for legal status, she was spared an uncertain trip across the border. But she still must wait in line for citizenship, just like a recent immigrant.

“I'm going to do what I have to do,” said Stephanie, now 19 and attending Cuyamaca College. “But it's hard, because I think of myself as a citizen.”

Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579; leslie.berestein@uniontrib.com

2008 Oct 20