Home Justice He Grew Up Thinking He Was American — Until He Was Deported

He Grew Up Thinking He Was American — Until He Was Deported

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Mauricio Oviedo Soto was 6 years old when a judge in a Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, circuit court officially recognized his adoption. With the stroke of a pen, he became Mauricio Cappelli, taking the surname of his new American father.

Nearly 32 years later, on March 12, 2018, Cappelli stepped off a commercial flight at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, Costa Rica, in the country of his birth. He was still processing the last 24 hours: Early that morning, officers entered his holding cell in a South Texas immigration detention center and told him he would be deported that day to his native country for the second time in his life.

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“They came in to my cell and told me to quickly pack up my stuff,” Cappelli recently told The Intercept in a phone call from Costa Rica. “I boarded my flight still in my jail clothes.”

“They came in to my cell and told me to quickly pack up my stuff. I boarded my flight still in my jail clothes.”

Cappelli had already been born when his mother, Yamileth Oviedo Soto, met Kurt Cappelli in Costa Rica in September 1980. At the time, Kurt Cappelli was a product engineer living in San José on a contracting assignment for a year, and the pair fell in love. When Mauricio was 16 months old, in May 1981, his mother brought him to Wisconsin to be with Kurt Cappelli. Two months later, they were married in Milwaukee.

Cappelli enjoyed a typical suburban upbringing in the Midwest. He was a Cub Scout, played little league baseball, and enjoyed the outdoors. He was the only adopted sibling of the three Cappelli children, but, like them, he was an American. Or so everyone thought. He had a social security card and a document known as a “certification of birth facts” issued by the state of Wisconsin.

How Cappelli, now 38, ended up detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a story only made possible within a byzantine immigration system that, until the new millennium, did not grant automatic citizenship to foreign-born children adopted by U.S. citizens. The Child Citizenship Act, passed by Congress in 2000, granted automatic citizenship to 140,000 child adoptees, according to the bill’s sponsors, but excluded those age 18 and up. The exemption — a political compromise to get wary Republican members on board — left out between 25,000 and 49,000 adult adoptees across the United States, according to the Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Over the course of six months, The Intercept interviewed more than 25 people who were adopted by U.S. citizens as children but who remain without citizenship, in some cases well into their 40s and 50s. Some no longer reside in the United States, unable to return because of their legal status. Others live with the constant fear of deportation. The majority live as permanent residents, a nebulous status within American immigration law that can be rescinded if an individual commits a crime that falls within a broad range of nonviolent “aggravated felonies,” including burglary and selling drugs.

A number of these individuals refused to speak on the record for fear of repercussions, professional or otherwise, to their personal well-being. But Cappelli and several other adoptees did agree to speak. For months, advocates have descended on Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act, a bill introduced this spring that would ensure that all intercountry adoptees left out of the Child Citizenship Act would be granted automatic citizenship.

The adoptees’ stories portrayed widespread incompetence and mismanagement within a number of agencies at the federal and state level, particularly a woeful lack of interagency communication between the U.S. State Department and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, better known as USCIS. In all the cases reviewed by The Intercept, adoptees were unaware that they were not U.S. citizens until well after 18 years of age — the legal cutoff point for adoptive parents to naturalize their children. A staggering number were denied citizenship due to their adoptive parents failing to file just one document — a certificate of citizenship known as the N-600 form — before they became legal adults.

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Mauricio Cappelli as a toddler.

Photo: Courtesy of Kurt Cappelli

The drive to the Webb County Detention Center campus outside Laredo, an unremarkable midsize Texas city that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, is a zigzag through strip malls, past billboards advertising gun ranges and immigration law firms. You have to exit off Highway 83 down a small country road, and even then, there are no signs — no indication that just down the strip is a massive complex with a number of facilities holding migrants.

Inside, when I arrived in early March, was inmate A02444709 — Mauricio Cappelli. He had been moved there the day before from the Rio Grande Detention Center, a facility on the same campus. Cappelli was at Rio Grande for just under 19 months, in what he described as a massive open prison dormitory with, at times, as many as 80 other detainees. In an equipment room that doubled as an office, amid loose paperwork and stacks of handcuffs, Cappelli told me about his life.

His story begins when he left the safe environs of his childhood home at 19 to live on his own. Having foregone college, Cappelli worked construction and factory jobs. “I was working, but I had no path,” he said, in a distinctly Milwaukee accent. “I got in with the wrong crowd and started drinking heavily and doing drugs.” On a night in March 2008, after a few minor run-ins with the law, Cappelli met a friend at a suburban Milwaukee gas station to arrange a drug deal. Police descended and found over 40 grams of cocaine on Cappelli, an amount large enough to qualify as a felony with intent to distribute under Wisconsin law. With no violent crimes on his record, the state offered Cappelli a plea bargain: four years in jail with additional three years of probation. He took it and pled guilty to a possession of narcotics charge. “I was done running from myself and was ready to face the music,” said Cappelli. “I was committed to changing my life for the better.”

Two months into his sentence, Cappelli said he received a call from USCIS. The man on the line said he needed to speak to Cappelli because he was born abroad — standard protocol — and inquired about his legal status. “I told him I was born in Costa Rica and had [a] state-issued driver’s license, a social security card, and birth certificate,” said Cappelli. “After a few minutes, he told me that all was fine and ended the call.” Cappelli said he found the call unusual, but thought nothing more of it at the time. (In a statement, a USCIS spokesperson declined to comment on Cappelli’s ongoing case, citing privacy laws.)

After a year behind bars, Cappelli was deemed by the state to be an exemplary inmate and qualified for early release through a six-month transition program. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections would not specifically comment on Cappelli beyond what his parole officer wrote about him in an October 2016 recommendation letter — that he was a responsible parolee who regularly reported for scheduled appointments and met all the state’s requirements.

Upon his release, Cappelli spent the next 5 1/2 years on parole rebuilding his life. He completed an associate’s program at a local community college and secured full-time employment through the state’s apprenticeship program. “He was sort of a model parolee for the state to show that ex-inmates could successfully rehabilitate into society,” said Kurt Cappelli, Mauricio’s adopted father. “He was starting to move ahead and put all this other stuff behind him.”

When his parole ended in March 2015, Cappelli was determined to fulfill a goal he had set during his time in prison: traveling to Costa Rica, his first trip outside of the U.S., to visit the graves of his uncle and grandmother. Both had died when he was behind bars. He applied for a passport with USCIS using his social security card, his Wisconsin-issued birth certificate of facts, and his driver’s license. USCIS promptly asked for more documents, but did not tell Cappelli that he was not a citizen; to Cappelli, it seemed like just a matter of paperwork. The process, which can take up to a year in some cases, appeared daunting, and Cappelli opted for an easier route: He went to the Costa Rican Consulate in Chicago — a 90-mile drive from Milwaukee — and secured a Costa Rican passport within two weeks.

That May, he spent 10 days in Costa Rica with family members, many of whom he had never met. He paid his respects to lost relatives and felt ready to return home. But he would never see Wisconsin again. At a stopover in Atlanta, a Border Patrol agent detained Cappelli, questioning why he would enter the country on a Costa Rican passport if he was a U.S. citizen. Cappelli showed him his social security card and Wisconsin-issued birth certificate. Hours later, in a secondary check, another agent told Cappelli that his parents had never filed for citizenship and, given his criminal record, authorities would take him into custody. At 34 years old, he was told for the first time in his life that he was not a citizen and was a “deportable alien.”

“It knocked the wind out of me. I just thought it was all just a horrible misunderstanding,” Kurt Cappelli said, referring to when Mauricio called from an Atlanta jail.

He devised a plan. His son’s court date was scheduled in a few weeks’ time; Kurt spent every waking hour building his case. He called every office of Wisconsin’s 10-member Congressional delegation, including that of House Speaker Paul Ryan. He got letters of recommendation from Cappelli’s parole officer and others who had mentored him throughout his time after prison.

On June 22,  the day before the hearing, the Cappelli family jumped in their car and made the roughly 800-mile trip to Atlanta. The hearing lasted just a few minutes. The judge ruled that Cappelli would be placed in removal proceedings and stripped of permanent residency due to his criminal conviction. It would be a beginning, rather than an end, to his ordeal — the start of a perilous journey to return home at almost any cost.

Between 1945 and 1998, there were 245,509 adoptees brought to the United States from abroad, according to data compiled in a report from the Adoptee Rights Campaign that was issued to members of Congress this spring. Prior to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, there existed no automatic procedures for citizenship. Parents had to re-adopt and naturalize their children in the United States, an exhaustive and expensive process that spanned years.

“It was kind of like the Wild West back then,” said C.J. Lyford, a Pennsylvania-based lawyer who is an expert on international adoption. “Adoption was not on the government’s radar.”

That changed when Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act, thanks in no small part to the efforts of former Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. In one day, 140,000 foreign-born child adoptees were granted automatic citizenship, the bill’s sponsors claimed at the time. Few, however, projected or discussed how the exemption for those age 18 and up — the exception that doomed Cappelli — would upend the lives of thousands.

For the adult adoptees left behind by the law, struggling with the realization that they have no citizenship rights is not limited to those forced from home by the government, but also those who quietly stay, living in fear and hiding in the shadows. “I just never imagined having to live with fear,” said Sara, an undocumented adoptee and activist living in California, who requested that The Intercept not use her real name. “You grow up as an American, and you feel safe. There’s an element of comfort. I’m as American as apple pie.”

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Sara, who requested that The Intercept not use her real name, as a young child with her siblings and adoptive mother.

Photo: Courtesy of Sara

Sara was adopted from an orphanage in Iran in early 1972. She entered the country in September 1973 on a six-month tourist visa. Her adoptive parents, both U.S. citizens, finalized her adoption in the United States in June 1974. Following a “normal upbringing” in a Los Angeles suburb, Sara got a job in health care. At 38, when she had finally paid off her student loans — acquired thanks to her social security card — Sara wanted to travel and applied for a passport. Her application was denied. When she inquired further, USCIS informed her that her adoptive parents had never filed the N-600 form when she was a minor, and that, consequently, she was not a citizen. She filed the form in February 2008 but was denied citizenship that October.

“I was essentially told that I had been living illegally in the country on an expired tourist visa for 34 years,” said Sara. “I went to a lawyer, who told me I was deportable.” Besides her family and a few friends, her predicament is a complete secret to the outside world. Over the last decade, as she has seen immigrants vilified by politicians, Sara says she now feels obligated to speak out for the thousands of adoptees across the country who, like her, live under constant fear of deportation. “I’m being forced to live as a fugitive,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Many adoptees are like me; they are children of ex-military whose parents sacrificed everything for this country, and now, that country is trying to deport their children.”

Sara traveled to Capitol Hill to share her story with members from both parties. Over the last year, she has lobbied before Congress to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act, which would qualify her for automatic citizenship.

Cappelli’s and Sara’s stories differ in their specifics, but both are ultimately cases of mishaps. In Cappelli’s case, it was bad legal advice given to his adopted father by a family lawyer when Cappelli was formally adopted as a toddler, compounded by the lack of follow-up on the USCIS call he received in prison in his 20s. For Sara, it was the absence of a simple communication between USCIS and the State Department that would have yielded a notice to her family that an N-600 form needed to be filed on her behalf as a minor.

There was no safety net to catch the mistakes. There was no one to turn to when they found out later in life that they were not U.S. citizens. Adoptees like Cappelli and Sara have never known another country. Brought as infants, they grew up alongside their peers believing that they were Americans.

An exact estimate of vulnerable adoptees is tough to come by. The Adoptee Rights Campaign’s report is the first comprehensive study to address the issue, finding that U.S. citizens adopted 267,098 foreign-born children between 1999 and 2016. As those children grow into adulthood, if the proportion of adoptive parents who fail to fill out the proper paperwork holds, an estimated 32,000 to 64,000 could be without U.S. citizenship by 2033. It would be a stark increase from the number of adoptees who were believed to have been excluded from the automatic citizenship provision of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.

“Are all children of U.S. citizens entitled to the same rights, privileges, and protections? Right now, the answer is ‘No.’”

“This an issue of fundamental rights for U.S. children,” said Anne Montgomery, a researcher for the Adoptee Rights Campaign and one of the report’s authors. “Are all children of U.S. citizens entitled to the same rights, privileges, and protections? Yes or no? Right now, the answer is ‘No.’ Is that acceptable in a democracy?”

Currently, foreign-born adoptees fall into two groups: those who enter the U.S. on visas which are subject to the automatic citizenship provisions of the Child Citizenship Act, and those who enter the country on visas which are not. The latter group — children entering on visas excluded from automatic citizenship rights — includes those on immigration visas with unfinalized foreign adoptions. For children in that situation, parents need to re-adopt and finalize the adoption process once the child is in the United States. If they fail to do so for any reason before the child turns 18, the adoptee will enter adulthood as a legal permanent resident but not as a citizen.

“USCIS and the Department of State have carefully coordinated communication procedures in order to fulfill their respective roles in the intercountry adoptions process,” the USCIS spokesperson told The Intercept in a statement. “USCIS and State determine if an adopted child is eligible to immigrate to the United States under U.S. immigration law.”

Advocates working on behalf of adoptees, though, see an injustice in the practice of holding Americans’ children responsible for their adoptive parents’ failure to fill out forms. “The reason they don’t have citizenship has nothing to do with them,” said Adam Pertman, the author of “Adoption Nation” and the president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. “It is grotesquely unfair that these individuals are being punished for the negligence of adults when they were children.”

Today’s polarized political environment on immigration issues, for advocates, carries risks: Members of Congress may group foreign-born adoptees without citizenship along with, say, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, said Pertman. “This isn’t an immigration issue,” said Pertman, who was a nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his March 1998 series on adoption for the Boston Globe. Pertman said the issue is largely rooted in anti-adoption prejudice and stigma within society at large. He points to the fact that when a U.S. citizen gives birth abroad, the child automatically qualifies for citizenship.

For Delahunt, the former member of Congress, the issue of adoption was deeply personal. He and his wife adopted a young girl from Vietnam in 1975; she was brought to the United States on Operation Babylift after the Vietnam War. In an interview with The Intercept, he said he became acutely aware of this stigma placed on adoptees when the government told him that she was not a citizen. “I saw it as insulting and diminishing her value as a human being,” Delahunt said. “We went through the naturalization process, which was expensive and time consuming.”

Delahunt said he “has a profound regret” that the Child Citizenship Act exemption has left so many adoptees without protections. He has lobbied Congress to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act, which was introduced on March 8. The bill, which enjoys rare bipartisan support, would grant automatic citizenship to those the Child Citizenship Act excluded.

According to Capitol Hill aides, the Adoptee Citizenship Act currently has 46 committed co-sponsors in the House and Senate, including those on the waitlist. Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., widely recognized as a 2020 presidential hopeful, is among them.

“International adoptees who were adopted by American parents and raised as Americans should have the same rights of citizenship as biological children,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a co-sponsor, told The Intercept. “Our bill closes this unintended loophole, provides relief and justice for thousands of Americans, and rights this wrong.”

However, one Democratic aide, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the bill faces an uphill battle because of its framing as an immigration bill by some within the GOP caucus. Sponsors got a much-needed boost in April when the Evangelical Immigration Table, a faith-based group, endorsed the legislation. “We strongly believe that these adoptees, who are American in every way except their immigration status, should gain the rights and protections of U.S. citizenship,” wrote the group’s leaders.

The bill maintains some ambiguity: It includes an exemption that would bar any adoptees that have been previously deported and have committed a violent crime. It is unclear if Cappelli, for instance, would qualify.

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Mauricio Cappelli, photographed in March 2018.

Photo: Courtesy of Kurt Cappelli

Mauricio Cappelli landed in San José in late July 2015 with a $300 check from the Atlanta jail that he could not cash because he had no Costa Rican bank account. He spoke no Spanish, and his extended family, which lives three hours south of the capital, was not in a financial situation to care for him. He stayed with a cousin for a time and eventually found his own place, a tiny apartment with little natural light.

“I fell into a deep depression and started losing weight,” said Cappelli. “I just felt so wronged by the situation. How could I be told all my life that I was an American and then be thrown out of my own country at 35?”

He grew desperate as time passed. He became ill but had no health insurance to seek treatment. Unable to secure any type of employment, Cappelli lived off occasional money order transfers from his family in Wisconsin. He only ate one meal per day. “Every day was a struggle,” he said. “It was like living in a giant jail cell.”

Cappelli began researching online to find any organization that could help him and came across the Adoptee Rights Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for intercountry adoptees in the United States. He had read that the group was lobbying Congress to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act and wrote an email to the organization’s main inbox and asked his father, Kurt Cappelli, to follow up with the group.

“We are a vulnerable population with no protections.”

“Mauricio’s is an extreme case of our struggle as intercountry adoptees in the United States,” said Joy Alessi, director of the Adoptee Rights Campaign. “We are a vulnerable population with no protections.”

Cappelli was heartened that a group back home was lobbying on his and others’ behalf. Still, he feared he would not survive much longer in Costa Rica on his own. In June 2016, after eight months in Costa Rica, he decided to try to return to the United States. He purchased a ticket home with a stopover in Mexico City, where the authorities questioned him. The Mexicans, too, found it bewildering that Cappelli held a Costa Rican passport with no grasp whatsoever of Spanish. A quick search through an internal system, in which Mexican and U.S. immigration authorities share intelligence, revealed that Cappelli had been deported from the U.S. less than a year before. They put him on a plane back to Costa Rica that evening.

Undeterred, Cappelli had a plan B. He phoned a friend in Wisconsin who he knew had family in South Texas that could help arrange, logistically and financially, for him to get across the border on foot. His friend, who declined repeated requests to speak to The Intercept, prepared the trip. Cappelli provided The Intercept with full documentation for his legal wrangling, but the journey of his second trip through Central America and Mexico could not be independently verified because the shadowy networks undocumented immigrants must utilize are not accessible to journalists.

In early August 2016, Cappelli set out from Costa Rica. He boarded a bus in San José and travelled through Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. At each border point, passengers were ordered to present their passports. At each stop, Cappelli passed unnoticed. When he arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border, he said Mexican border agents refused to let him pass. He found local fixers at the border station, whom he paid to take him to the banks of the Rio Suchiate, the river that separates Guatemala and Mexico.

“They placed me and I don’t how many others in inner tubes across the river,” Cappelli recalled.

The next morning, after spending the night in a hotel in the border city of Tapachula, Cappelli boarded a series of buses through Mexico City and Monterrey, eventually arriving at Reynosa, on the U.S.-Mexico border. Three days later, Cappelli said he was instructed by his friend in Wisconsin to return to Monterrey. That night, a van picked him up in the hotel parking lot and drove him to a safe house at the border.

Inside the safe house were groups of 10 to 15 migrants, Cappelli recalled. Some of the migrants accused him of being an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent. They yelled that Cappelli, who has a fair complexion, did not look Costa Rican, as his passport claimed he was. “They circled me,” said Cappelli. “I feared for my life that night, but eventually someone there who felt sorry for me intervened on my behalf, and they left me alone.”

A few hours later, under the cover of darkness, a guide took the migrants in small boats across Falcon Lake, a large body of water just adjacent to the border, into Texas. The migrants disembarked, and over the course of two hours, Cappelli said, they walked on foot until they saw truck lights.

“Immediately, the guide ran away along with a handful of others from the group,” said Cappelli. “I had become very ill by this point and was tired. I stayed there and surrendered myself to Border Patrol agents.”

After three days in a border station, where he slept on the floor alongside more than 10 other migrants, agents took Cappelli 2 1/2 hours north to the Rio Grande Detention Center, outside Laredo. The U.S. government charged him with illegal entry.

“I’ve been doing this awhile, but I had never seen a case like his before,” said Marc Gonzalez, a lawyer in Laredo who took on Cappelli’s case. “An adoptee who had grown up his whole life in this country but now was stuck in an immigration detention center. It was eye opening.”

The judge in the case was sympathetic to Cappelli’s plight. He held off the trial and allowed him to apply for U.S. citizenship. Typically, a detainee is held at the Rio Grande Detention Center for a period of weeks, said Gonzalez. Cappelli stayed for nearly 19 months. In December 2017, however, USCIS denied Cappelli’s application for citizenship, ostensibly on the grounds that his parents had failed to submit the N-600 certificate of citizenship form when he was a minor. Cappelli appealed.

As his appeal went through the backlogged queue at USCIS, the government dropped its illegal entry charge in February 2018. They provided no reason why, but Gonzalez suspects that the government likely saw no upside in going to trial, given that Cappelli had already served nearly the entire sentence in detention. Relieved of the charges, Cappelli was placed on a fast track for deportation.

An ICE spokesperson told The Intercept that Cappelli was ultimately deported because “he was in violation of immigration law.” The spokesperson declined to elaborate further. When asked how many foreign-born adoptees ICE deports to their birth countries each year, the spokesperson said the agency “does not have that information.”

“As long as there are possibilities out there to bring him home, I have to hang on to that thread of hope.”

The appeal, by procedure, was then referred to the Administrative Appeals Office, an office within the agency that can be used by petitioners to appeal adverse USCIS decisions made on their petitions. The average wait time on a decision is six months, according to the agency’s website.

Cappelli’s advocates, including on Capitol Hill, maintain some hope that the situation can be resolved favorably. “As the situation continues to develop,” said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. in a statement to The Intercept, “I am hopeful to hear back from USCIS on the status of his appeal so he can return to Milwaukee and his family as soon as possible.”

As Cappelli awaits a final decision from USCIS at his aunt’s home, in a remote town near the Costa Rica-Panama border, he said he is jobless and often spends his days researching what he can on his case and those of others like him.

Since 2015, Kurt Cappelli estimates he has spent well over $10,000 and dedicated thousands of hours to trying to bring his son home. The simple mistake of not filing correct paperwork early in Mauricio’s life is a pain that he lives with every day. “It’s gut-wrenching,” said Kurt Cappelli. “As long as there are possibilities out there to bring him home, I have to hang on to that thread of hope.”

Top photo: Mauricio Cappelli, photographed in March 2018.

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