Immigrants and their status in the US continues to be an ongoing issue. Some of this focus has been about a cohort of people known as Dreamers; mainly Spanish American immigrants who arrived undocumented as children with their parents into the US before the age of 16 and whose status is now in question under Donald Trump’s presidency.
But the Dreamers are not the only people now worried about their status in a country that has been their home for almost all their lives. A significant number of Irish-born people are in a different kind of citizenship limbo.
Mari Steed (58) of Richmond, Virginia is the US co-ordinator of the Adoption Rights Alliance. She describes herself as “one of some 2,000 children trafficked from Ireland to the US from the 1940s to 1960s. I’m lucky in that my adoptive parents were informed and took the proper steps to have me naturalised as a US citizen. But many others, particularly pre-1952, were not.
“And the 2000 US Child Citizenship Act, which grants automatic citizenship to inter-country adoptees, does not retrospectively cover us. We didn’t ask to be sent to the US. But we’re here, and having to live with the threat of possible deportation.”
Steed speaks by phone from her home in Virginia. She came to the US when she was two. From her work with the Irish adoption community in the US, she estimates there are some 200 people “that we know of” (the real figure could be far higher) who were brought from Ireland during the 1940s-1960s period, and were never naturalised. They remain on Green Cards.
“People might only become aware of it when they were applying for a passport, or if for some reason, they came to the attention of the law.”
Steed cites one case of a young man who followed his adoptive father’s career by enlisting with the military, and only discovered he was not a US citizen at 18 when he received a posting to Germany and applied for a passport.
That case was eventually resolved, but Steed fears that in the current febrile atmosphere around immigrants in the US, people adopted from Ireland without the correct paperwork are at risk of deportation.
“Most people who don’t have citizenship have managed to stay under the radar,” Steed says. “You require background checks to work a government job, and there are loads of those jobs, so citizenship would come up in those cases.”
Due to the nature of some illegal adoptions from Ireland to the US, paperwork was frequently incorrect, or sometimes missing altogether. Every child who was born in Ireland and adopted into the US should be able to avail of US citizenship, and both US and Irish passports. But Steed knows many who were not able to get their Irish passports issued, due to the lack of documentation. “It’s messy and unclear,” as she describes it.
"Marian" (52) who lives in Florida, has asked for anonymity as she remains on Green Card status only. "I was born in the Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home, in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, where Philomena Lee had her baby," she says.
At the age of three, Marian was sent to Chicago to adoptive parents. Her adoptive mother was Irish, had a personal contact with a nun in Sean Ross Abbey, and had requested to adopt a child from there. “I don’t know if I was sent by myself on the plane, or if there was someone with me, but my parents didn’t come themselves to get me,” she says. She never discovered if she was accompanied or not on the plane journey from Ireland to Chicago.
On arrival in the US, although she was three years old, her adoptive parents gave her a new first name along with their surname. This caused complications with her adoption certificate, as she then had two certificates; each with different names.
“My mom became a US citizen as she was married to an American. I don’t know why they didn’t get citizenship for me too: they must have assumed I now had it too.”
Marian always knew she was adopted. She moved around a lot as an adult, and in the moves, she lost the original adoption certificate, which recorded the name she had until she was three.
She had meanwhile, through Bernardo’s, made contact with her birth mother in Ireland, who had kept Marian’s existence a secret from the children she went on to have. They arranged to meet in Dublin in 1999.
I went to get a passport and they told me almost right away that I wasn't an American citizen. I had no idea until they told me
“I had never travelled outside the US before. I went to get a passport, with my social security card and my certificate of adoption with my American name, and they told me almost right away that I wasn’t an American citizen. I had no idea until they told me.
“My adoptive parents were dead by then, the record of my birth name was gone, because I had lost the original certificate, and I had to prove my identity to them.”
The trip to meet her birth mother had to be cancelled. When Marian got her records from Chicago and the adoption decree, she discovered her birth name had been “whited out” on it.
Eventually, she got a Green Card and an Irish passport, and made the trip to Ireland a year later. She met her mother – whom she resembled in looks – for 90 minutes, and they had lunch.
“She was very quiet; she looked down at the floor most of the time. She was ashamed, I guess.” Over lunch, her mother told her that she remained haunted by the way “the nuns had treated her and the other girls there. She was very torn up inside”.
It was the only time Marian saw her birth mother, who died six years ago.
She is now contemplating applying for citizenship, as she feels vulnerable holding only a Green Card.