She was 9 months old, a baby named Thuy Tran, when she was airlifted to an Arkansas refugee center in the last, desperate days of the Vietnam War.
She was adopted by a military family, moved to South Jersey, played soccer and lacrosse at Rancocas High School, went on to Burlington County College — no longer Thuy Tran but Denise, an American name for an American girl.
The trouble started when she applied to become a Philadelphia police officer in the mid-1990s.
When she sought her birth certificate, officials at the federal immigration office delivered shocking news: She wasn’t a U.S. citizen. She didn’t even have a green card, which provides for legal permanent residency.
In the eyes of the government, she wasn’t the middle-class suburban kid who grew up on soccer fields and skateboards. She was an “illegal alien” who could be deported to a Vietnam she didn’t know or remember.
“They were going to arrest me,” said Denise, 42, who spoke on the condition her last name not be used. “I was undocumented and terrified. For close to 20 years I’ve been living in constant fear that I would be taken away from the only place I’ve ever known.”
Today, amid President Trump’s call for tougher tactics against undocumented immigrants, an estimated 30,000 people who were adopted from overseas as babies or toddlers have discovered they’re not actually U.S. citizens.
Years ago, when international adoption was relatively new, many parents wrongly believed that adoption and immigration were the same thing. Actually, until 2000, they were two separate processes.
Many grown adoptees have learned their true legal status by accident, when they file for a passport or government benefit. Some are legal residents who can openly work to obtain citizenship. Others face deportation to homelands where they can’t speak the language or read a bus schedule.
Sara is one, living a semi-underground existence in Southern California.
She doesn’t vote. She doesn’t travel. She doesn’t do anything that might draw the attention of authorities. She would not allow her name to be published, willing to be identified only by her one-word alias.
“I’m an American,” she insisted in an interview.
But not in the eyes of the government. She was born in Iran, living in an orphanage before being adopted at age 2 by an Air Force officer and his wife.
She grew up with two American parents and a military identification card. But in 2008 she was rejected for a passport, stunned to learn she didn’t even have a green card.
A lawyer offered no comfort:
“Immigration considers you undocumented,” Sara was told, “and you are deportable to Iran.”
Now, in her 40s, she spends her savings on lawyers and fights depression, afraid that at any moment she could lose everything.
Those fears aren’t groundless. In November, a 41-year-old Washington state man was deported to South Korea, from where he was adopted at age 3. Adam Crapser grew up believing he was a citizen. When he applied for a green card as an adult, the government saw he had convictions for assault, burglary, and weapons possession. Homeland Security makes it a priority to deport noncitizens who it thinks threaten public safety.
Supporters argued that Crapser deserved to stay, that he had turned his life around after an abusive upbringing in two adoptive homes. No one ever sought citizenship for him.
It didn’t matter.
“If you are not a U.S. citizen and you are convicted of a crime, that makes you removable; you’re very vulnerable,” said Center City immigration lawyer Emily Cohen. “There are forms of relief. But why should you have to go through the trauma and expense of a removal proceeding to try to be able to remain in the U.S.? You were adopted by a U.S. citizen and lived here all your life.”
For adoptees, it’s a dilemma without a name — or a universal remedy.
Joy Alessi came to the United States in 1967, adopted from a South Korean orphanage at the age of 7 months. She grew up in California and at 25 applied for a passport — flabbergasted to be told she wasn’t a citizen.
Fortunately, immigration officials found that while her green card had not been updated, she was still a permanent resident.
Now 50 and living in Houston, Alessi worries what older age might bring. She’s always paid into Social Security, but will she have trouble collecting benefits if she’s not a citizen?
“We’re Americans in every sense of the word,” she said, frustrated. “We have invested in this country in every way possible.”
Who gets the blame?
Parents who didn’t know — or didn’t care — that they must naturalize their child. Lawyers who gave bad advice. Adoption agencies that considered their work complete. A government that knowingly admitted thousands of children, but never checked back later on.
“There’s so much fear,” said Maline Carroll, 38, a Haitian adoptee and Boston adoption consultant who secured her green card in August. “Adults should not be affected by mistakes their parents made.”
The law governing foreign adoption changed in 2000, amid a surge in arrivals from China, Russia, and Guatemala. The Child Citizenship Act provided automatic citizenship for foreign-born adopted children. But it didn’t cover adoptees who were 18 or older at the time, and that left thousands in limbo.
Now the Adoptee Rights Campaign, an advocacy group, is pushing Congress to pass a law to grant citizenship to all international adoptees — period. The act has bogged down in committee.
“We’re planning to reformulate a more aggressive strategy [with] a new version of the bill,” said ARC leader Angela Bennett, 35, of Arizona.
Bennett obtained citizenship in October, after seven years of effort.
Adopted from Korea as a toddler in 1983, she never imagined she wasn’t a citizen. But in 2009 her name popped up on E-Verify, a system used by businesses to confirm work approvals.
Bennett, shaken, asked her bosses how to resolve the issue.
“My employer said, ‘We don’t know, but we can’t sponsor you,’ ” she said. “I didn’t even know what they meant by that. Sponsor me? Why would anybody have to sponsor me? I’ve lived here all my life.”
Denise had advocates on her side.
“You can’t ask for a better person to come to our country and contribute,” said immigration lawyer Judith Bernstein-Baker, who worked more than a decade on the case at HIAS Pennsylvania.
In 2015, attorney Valentine Brown, of Duane Morris LLP, came onto the case. Last year Denise was notified: Report on April 1 to take the oath of citizenship.
It wasn’t an April Fools' Day prank. Friends and coworkers — she’s a phlebotomist in Philadelphia — held a big celebration.
“The whole process has been so traumatizing and stressful,” she said. “Becoming a citizen has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”