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Alien by adoption

Citizenship law loophole leaves some international adoptees in vulnerable position

Shepherd (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Alien by adoption
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Kairi Abha Shepherd is officially a woman without a country. Unless her lawyers can work out a deal with the U.S. government, she may be deported from the only home she's ever known.

Shepherd, 30, came to America as an infant from an orphanage in India. Her adoptive mother, Erlene Shepherd, brought her back to Utah to live. Shepherd died when Kairi was 8 years old, leaving her young daughter to be raised by guardians. Although Erlene Shepherd was a U.S. citizen, she never filed the necessary papers to attain citizenship for her adopted daughter.

That omission is now causing big trouble. In 2004, when she was 17, Kairi Shepherd went to jail for check forging, a felony. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents discovered she was not a citizen, they began deportation proceedings against her. The agency explained its reasoning to India America Today newspaper: "Her removal is consistent with the agency's immigration enforcement priorities, which include focusing on the identification and deportation of aliens with felony criminal convictions."

The reason ICE considers Shepherd an alien is technical. Congress passed a law in 2000 to make the citizen process for children adopted internationally automatic (upon the child's entry into the United States), but it applied only to children who were younger than 18 when it went into effect. Shepherd was too old by 11 months.

Shepherd's case has received widespread attention in India and among Indian-American groups, who want India to throw up roadblocks to the deportation. It also reveals holes in the American adoption system. Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption, said thousands of adoptees are here legally and don't realize they don't have citizenship. They discover they aren't citizens when they apply for passports, college scholarships, or military service. Most of them fill out the necessary citizenship paperwork and go on about their business.

But some of them, like Shepherd, commit minor crimes and are considered immigrants, subject to deportation. Johnson says the system needs several fixes. First, the 2000 law needs updating to capture those who missed the age cutoff under that law. That would take care of older adoptees.

But some younger adoptees have problems because of kinks in the U.S. system. If both parents travel abroad to finalize an adoption in a foreign court, the child becomes a U.S. citizen immediately upon setting foot in this country. But if only one parent travels abroad to finalize the adoption, that child is not automatically granted U.S. citizenship. His parents need to re-adopt him in an American court. Although many states have simplified the re-adoption process, the process can still cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, and some parents never get around to it, putting their children at risk if they ever get convicted of even minor crimes.

Adam Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute wrote that it's hard to imagine something similar happening to a child born into a family: "People who break the law should unequivocally pay an appropriate price for their offenses. But I think it can fairly be argued that the reason some are being ejected from the only country they've ever known is not because of the crime they've committed-but because they were adopted."

From shell to soul collecting

The scene: a mostly Creole church service in a tent in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood filled with rotting trash and earthquake-collapsed buildings. The person: Donald Lyons raises his aged arms, sways his six-foot frame in time to the beat, and belts out "Hallelujah"-the only word the 75-year-old American recognizes during the service.

Thirteen years ago, Lyons planned to retire from his successful construction firm in Walterboro, S.C., and relax with his wife, Loretta. They owned a 30-foot boat and a second home on Edisto Island. They collected seashells. Today, when Lyons visits his Citadel buddies, they don't talk about seashells, golf scores, or European travel. Instead, they want to know why he spends his time in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

He explains that Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God set him on a different track by teaching him about God's call to serve. Mission trips to Haiti showed him "the dire needs of people who love the Lord but have no resources."

Since that change in course, Lyons has visited Haiti at least 40 times. He often takes friends, family, and volunteers with Haiti Under God (HUG), a mission organization he founded. As his SUV winds through Port-au-Prince's bustling, smelly streets, he explains, "You can't tell people about the perpetual poverty. People have to come and see for themselves."

Lyons' work is difficult. He had to locate new space for the orphanage and hire a new housemother for 17 female orphans after the 2010 earthquake destroyed the existing building and killed the housefather. In building a rural church, he encountered voodoo priests and priestesses. His evangelistic work takes him to densely populated, crime-ridden slums like City Soleil.

At home in South Carolina, Lyons spends up to seven hours a day meeting with board members, talking to pastors and other Haitian connections, and organizing trips. When Lyons finally retires is up to God: "I'll do what He wants me to until He stops me. I don't have an exit plan."

-Deena C. Bouknight is a writer in South Carolina

Susan Olasky

Susan is a former WORLD book reviewer, story coach, feature writer, and editor. She has authored eight historical novels for children and resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.



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