How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How does an adoptee get deported? More easily than one might think

Photo by Geoff McKim/Flickr (Creative Commons)

An "examination room for adopted children" in Guangzhou, China, April 2010

Q: How does someone adopted legally as a baby by American parents get deported?

A: Relatively easily, and it's happened to several one-time adopted kids.

The case that's been getting media attention lately is that of Kairi Abha Shepherd, a 30-year-old Utah woman who was adopted from an orphanage in India when she was three months old. In spite of her legal adoption when she was an infant, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld an immigration court's decision that Shepherd is in the United States illegally and is deportable.

How and why? It's tricky, but it's a situation that quite a few adoptees have fallen into over the years. Shepherd's adoptive mother, who also adopted other children, died from cancer when her daughter was eight years old. At the time of her death, she had not completed her daughter's application for U.S. citizenship, although the girl was in the country legally.

And there lies the problem. While there are now laws in place that protect younger adoptees, older adoptees not covered under a 2000 statute whose parents failed to naturalize them remain legal residents, subject to deportation if they run afoul of the law. In 2007, Shepherd caught the attention of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when she was jailed in Salt Lake City for a probation violation; in 2004, she had pleaded guilty to check forgery, a deportable offense.

Like others in her situation, she didn't know she could be deported until this happened. Some background from a story in the Deseret News:

A widow and single mother to seven children, Erlene Shepherd died in 1991 of breast cancer, never having filed the proper paperwork for Kairi Shepherd, her youngest child. Kairi Shepherd went to live with one of her adoptive siblings, a sister, until she was 14, and then an adoptive brother until she graduated from high school, Smith said.

A sibling said their mother had filed the proper paperwork for her other children.


This is almost always the catch in these cases, which are fairly rare, but do happen every so often. Younger adoptees are covered by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which made citizenship virtually automatic for most adopted children brought into the U.S. But it doesn't apply retroactively. According to news reports, Shepherd was 11 months too old to qualify for protection under this law when it took effect in February, 2001.

At the same time, tighter immigration laws that took effect in 1996 made it easier to deport non-citizens, with legal residents convicted of certain crimes, including some misdemeanors, losing most forms of relief under the law. Caught in the middle are people like Shepherd.

Others deported in recent years have included Jess Mustanich, adopted from El Salvador by two U.S. citizen parents from the San Jose area when he was six months old. After years fighting his deportation, he was sent to El Salvador in 2008, at 29. His parents had divorced before naturalizing him, and his father said he'd run into roadblocks after that. At 18, Mustanich and some friends stole from his father, who called the cops - and he was convicted of burglary.

From a story I wrote about him just after he was deported:

Described by his father as “a middle-class white kid” raised in an Anglo household, Mustanich learned a handful of Spanish words from Latino detainees while in immigration detention, but is otherwise starting over as a stranger in a strange land.

Speaking by phone Friday from a San Salvador hotel, he described going through customs at the airport.

“They brought out some guy, and he asked, 'Why don't you speak Spanish?' ” Mustanich said. “I told him it was because I was adopted, and he said, 'Then why are you here?' ”


Not all the former adoptees deported have been young. A few years ago, ICE deported Alejandro Ebron, a Japanese-born man from California who was nearing 50 when he was sent back to Japan. He had been adopted in 1959 as a one-year-old by Navy sailor who was Filipino American and who raised him with his Mexican American wife, both long deceased. I interviewed Ebron for another story while he was detained in San Diego, contesting his deportation:
"I grew up thinking I was half Filipino and half Mexican," Ebron said. "They could send me to Mexico and I would get by. I can speak a little Spanish. But Japan? I'm going to be in trouble if they send me there."

Others who have been deported in recent years include Jennifer Haynes, who was also adopted from India. Deported in 2008, she continues fighting to return to the U.S., where she has a family of her own. Some of these cases have turned especially tragic. Joao Herbert, a young Brazilian-born adoptee, was deported there in 2000 at age 26. Not long afterward, he was murdered.

The website Pound Pup Legacy, dedicated to adoptees and foster children, has a list of former adopted children who have been deported or face deportation.

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