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A twisted route to gain legal status for adoptive children

June 25, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Cheryl Wishaw learned that the foster son she was adopting was undocumented when she started registering him for elementary school.

Suddenly, the immigration protests on television became very personal.

"I paid closer attention to the marches and what they were fighting for," said Wishaw, 48, of Phelan, in San Bernardino County.

Because county officials often don't research a child's immigration status, parents are adopting children without knowing whether they are legal. As long as the children remain dependents of the court and meet certain criteria, they could qualify under federal law for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and get green cards within months.

But once the adoption is finalized and the child is no longer a dependent of the court, getting a green card could become more difficult and take longer, sometimes requiring a trip to the child's native country.

Ken Borelli, who helped draft the law that led to the creation of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, said it's in everyone's best interests to identify undocumented children in foster care and get them green cards if they are eligible.

"It's very hard to get them adopted if the immigration status is unresolved," Borelli said.

Wishaw said Dominic came to live with her when he was 5, soon after he was taken from his biological mother and placed in foster care.

Wishaw said that as soon as she learned he was undocumented, she started worrying about immigration officials deporting him to Mexico.

"Where should they ship him to?" she asked. "They don't even know who his kinfolk are."

The case was delayed for nearly two years, Wishaw said, in part because she didn't have a birth certificate for Dominic. With the help of Kristen Jackson, a lawyer with Public Counsel in Los Angeles, Dominic remained a dependent of the court and received a green card in January.

Last month, 9-year-old Dominic's adoption was finalized.

"He is my son and part of our family," Wishaw said.

Another parent, Sue Piland, started an organization called Sue Cares after facing a similar situation with her adopted son, Vicente.

Piland, who lives in Rohnert Park, Calif., near Santa Rosa, adopted Vicente in 1999 when he was 8. A year later, she tried to get him a Social Security card and was told he wasn't in the United States legally.

"I assumed because we adopted him, he had legal status," she said.

Lawyers told her she had to go to Mexico and ask the consulate for permission to get him back into the U.S. legally. Piland, 49, refused, fearing Vicente would be taken from her.

"I just kept knocking on doors," she said. Finally, she was able to get him a green card after the state made him a dependent of the court again; it later reinstated the adoption.

Now Piland helps other adoptive parents and advocates for legislation on behalf of undocumented foster children.

"Just to feed them and put a roof over their head is not going to do anything if they are in danger of deportation," she said.

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