The day Lillian Williams turned 14, she visited the DMV to go through a rite of passage for American teens — obtaining a learner’s permit. Instead of leaving with a license, she left with a rejection and a new worry. The employees told Lillian she wasn’t an American citizen: She was simply a permanent resident.
Adopted as a baby, Lillian has lived her entire life in the United States with American parents. She felt confused and her mother, Janet Williams, wondered what this meant for her daughter.
“It was a moment of panic,” Williams, 59, of Overland Park, Kansas, said. “She really wanted her permit. I thought, ‘Oh God, she is going to be crushed.’”
“She said, ‘I am as American as they come. Look at me. I’m drinking a Starbucks and wearing Lululemon,’” Janet Williams recalled with a laugh.
Still, Williams worried. That worry is shared by many parents and adoptees, after recent high-profile cases involving deportations of adults who were adopted from other countries as children.
Paul Fernando Schreiner was recently deported to Brazil, his birth country, despite being legally adopted at age 5 by U.S. parents; he had a Nebraska birth certificate, a Social Security number and paid taxes. He was never naturalized as a U.S. citizen but lived as an American for 30 years. U.S. adoption groups estimate that between 35,000 and 75,000 adoptees in the United States could be in similar situations, many incorrectly believing they are already citizens.
Williams adopted Lillian from Kenya in 2004 and the teen has lived in the United States ever since. While her older sister Aggie was adopted in 2002 from Kenya, she automatically became a citizen and received a certificate of citizenship, Lillian never received one. When Williams learned about this oversight, she immediately applied for the certificate of citizenship.
“You don’t even want the world to know your child is not a citizen. I had heard from other adopted families that it could be a year or two (to receive it),” Williams said. “Thankfully, from beginning to end, it only took four months.”
While Lillian has her certificate, Williams worries about her daughters and their citizenship status as messages and policies about immigration and citizenship change so frequently.
“For me, I was pretty confident that I adopted my kids and they are citizens. Who know if (the government) is going to go after that?” Williams said. “That’s in the back of my mind.”
Across the country, families with children adopted overseas wonder if their children are at risk for deportation because of clerical oversights. Some are even warning their children about applying to college and receiving federal loans because it might draw attention to them. It’s during this process that families have found out that their children’s citizenship status might not be what they believe it was.
“Just because someone didn’t check something right at the Social Security office, it comes up and it is an immigration issue,” Valarie Chavis, founder of Culturally Fluent Families, a program helping non-black adoptive parents of black adoptive children, and the mother of two children adopted from Ethiopia, said. “It is the first time they are connecting with the federal government.”
Chavis’s children are 17 and 15 and when she adopted them, they became automatic citizens. Still, her teens have wondered if they're safe.
“My kids are coming to me and saying, ‘Are we citizens? How do you know?’ We had a lot of conversations over six to eight months of all the ins and outs,” Chavis said.
Chavis’s children have lived in the country for a decade. While her daughter thinks of herself as an immigrant, her son thinks of himself as wholly American. She recalls a day when she stopped by the basketball court where she thought he was playing and couldn’t find him. She panicked.
“He wasn’t there. It was just really a trigger. I am sitting here with tears in my eyes. None of us should have to feel that way,” she said. “If someone would ship my child to Ethiopia he would be lost. He knows nothing of that place.”
Dana Spoor’s daughter, Morgan, 16, was born in Russia and has lived with them in the United States since 2005. When Morgan went to get her driver’s permit, she was told because she was born in another country, she couldn’t receive one without U.S. Department of Homeland Security approval.
“She was worried they were going to come for her,” Spoor, 54, an instructional coach from Olathe, Kansas, told TODAY Parents. “One of the comments that broke my heart was when she said, ‘I really don’t feel like an American anymore.’"
Spoor began calling lawyers and elected officials and eventually the secretary of the state of Kansas wrote a letter so Morgan could get her license. But Spoor has noticed a difference in her daughter.
“She is not as open about her adoption,” Spoor said. “There was that uncertainty, ‘Are they going to come and take me?’ That feeling doesn’t go away.”
Spoor also had planned to take Morgan to Russia after high school graduation to introduce her to her native country, but Morgan recently said she doesn’t want to go.
“She is frightened they won’t let her come back,” Spoor said. “There is just a fear.”