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INS Rules Pose Catch-22 for Adoptee

Citizenship: A 10-year ban from U.S. is possible. The dilemma is common.

October 23, 2000|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sarah Marie Caro's scrapbook sketches a kind of idealized Southern California childhood. There she is, from bewildered infant to exuberant cheerleader, from her first communion to her quinceanera, or 15th birthday celebration.

The fact that she was adopted at age 4 out of Mexico never mattered much. English was the primary language in a home where five older siblings accepted the adopted girl as their baby sister.

"I'm a lot like my mom," she said as mother and daughter gazed at the images of a young lifetime.

She is an animated, upbeat 19-year-old who is studying at community college to be a teacher and works as a salesclerk at the giant Galleria at Tyler Mall, two blocks from the family's ranch-style home on the outskirts of Riverside.

But the comforting prospect of a life of stability and continuity was shattered last year when an application for a U.S. passport revealed a startling fact: Sarah is an illegal immigrant.

Now she finds herself caught in a Catch-22 created by recent federal immigration crackdowns. As a child of U.S. citizens, she is entitled to permanent resident status, or a green card. That would be the first step in a swift transition to citizenship.

Until 1998, that would have been relatively simple: Submit the completed paperwork to an Immigration and Naturalization Service office and pay the $1,000 fine imposed on those here illegally.

But a series of changes in the law--approved as part of a congressional backlash against illegal immigrants--puts Sarah Caro and thousands of others in an almost impossible position. She is now required to appear at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico.

However, a 1996 statute said illegal immigrants could be barred from returning home for as long as 10 years if they leave the country. The INS may waive the ban in cases of "extreme hardship," but there is no guarantee.

"My heart dropped to my feet when I found out," said Amelia Caro, Sarah's adoptive mother, a U.S. citizen born in Arizona. She is a second cousin of Cesar Chavez, the legendary farm worker advocate.

It turned out that Sarah's parents had made a crucial mistake at the time of the adoption. They were unaware that they had to apply for Sarah's citizenship. That is what is done by the great majority of people who bring children from abroad. Instead, the family wrongly assumed that Sarah automatically became a citizen when the adoption was completed in a California courtroom.

"It makes me feel like an outcast," Sarah said. "I always hated those words, 'illegal alien.' I never thought it could happen to me."

Seeking Help in Congress

This week, as the congressional session in Washington nears an end, lawmakers are weighing a Clinton administration proposal that would ease the way for Sarah and multitudes of other immigrants in similar situations. Likely beneficiaries number in the tens of thousands each year, and probably more than 100,000, according to the INS.

Those affected are typically the children, spouses and parents of citizens and legal residents, all eligible for U.S. residence because of family ties. Keeping families together has long been a cornerstone of immigration law.

"I thought, once we were married, my husband could get his papers and that would be that," said Maria Estrada, 25. She is a U.S.-born citizen and lives in a Cypress Park apartment with her husband, Jose Antonio Estrada, 32, and the couple's 2-month-old son, Ethan.

The couple met while working at a McDonald's at the Galleria mall in Glendale and were married in January. But Jose Antonio remains illegal. He is unwilling to risk a trip to Mexico to complete the immigration paperwork, knowing he could face being separated from his family for 10 years.

The ranks of those affected also include many whose job skills make them eligible for permanent legal residency.

They are people like Pavel V. Rozvadovsky, a former champion skydiver for the Soviet military who fled here from Ukraine in 1991. A skydiving firm in California is sponsoring Rozvadovsky for a business visa as a professional of exceptional skills.

But he will not take the chance of leaving the country and being separated for a decade from his family--his wife, Janna, who also fled in 1991, and his two children, including his U.S.-born daughter, Natalie Victoria, who turns 2 next month.

"I feel trapped, frustrated," said Rozvadovsky, 37, a resident of Riverside County who is a former skydiving world record-holder.

The INS said 10-year bans on reentering the United States have been imposed on illegal immigrants seeking legal status, but could not say how many.

The administration's plan--part of a broad package labeled by its backers as the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act--would restore something called Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The provision, which lapsed in 1998 because of Republican opposition, allowed illegal immigrants eligible for green cards to "adjust status" in the United States upon paying the $1,000 fine.

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