BETHEL, Alaska — When Rebecca Trimble was a little girl, she wore red, white and blue to Independence Day parades. In middle school, she was a flag-bearer for the Girl Scouts. During her teenage years, the Backstreet Boys blared from a boom box in her bedroom.
It was on the eve of getting married in 2012 that she realized there was something amiss in her all-American upbringing. Adopted as an infant from Mexico, she discovered that what she thought was a minor mix-up in her paperwork was something else entirely. Eventually, she realized that not only was she not American, she did not, in the government’s view, belong in the United States at all.
This year, a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services arrived in the remote corner of western Alaska where Trimble cooks for homeless people and where her husband, John, is the only dentist in town.
“You are not authorized to remain in the United States,” it said, ordering her to depart the country within 33 days or face deportation.
“I feel incredibly vulnerable,” Trimble, 30, said as her two boys, Elliot, 5, and Jay, 4, played in their Bethel apartment. “I am putting my faith in a miracle.”
Lax oversight of international adoptions for years fueled a booming trade in babies. In the 1980s and ’90s, Americans seeking children were tricked into paying organized rings for babies smuggled across the border. In the early 2000s, children wrongly taken from their parents by brokers in Vietnam, Guatemala and other countries were presented as orphans to American adoption agencies. In other cases, parents did not understand, or did not follow, the rules for making foreign adoptions fully legal.
“There are too many people in limbo through no fault of their own,” said Susan Jacobs, a retired ambassador who was the special adviser on adoptions at the State Department between 2010 and 2017. “They find out in their 20s, and are held accountable for what their parents did or didn’t do when they were babies.”
The Adoptee Rights Campaign, a group that promotes citizenship for adoptees, estimates that at least 35,000 people in the United States lack U.S. citizenship because their adoptive parents failed to secure it for them.
They have started families of their own, only to learn the truth when they went to vote, tried to obtain a passport or got into trouble with the law. More recently, their precarious status has been laid bare when they applied for a Real ID, a license with stricter standards that will be required for domestic air travel in 2021.
“Adopted adults are discovering they are not citizens after thinking they were Americans all their lives,” said Gregory Luce, an immigration and adoptee rights lawyer in Minneapolis.
In 2001, Congress provided relief for adoptees below the age of 18 who lacked citizenship, and the federal government has been willing to help others adjust their status on a case-by-case basis. But that flexibility appears to have diminished under the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration agenda.
Trimble’s story began when her adoptive father, George Wilson, a recreational vehicle mechanic in Salem, Oregon, and his wife, Pamela Edmonds, gave up on conceiving a child after eight years of trying. One day in 1989, they got word from friends in Mexico that a baby about to be born there would need a home. They agreed to pay the medical bills and headed for Mexico.
Three days later, they were homebound with their daughter. At the border, a U.S. agent peered into their vehicle, where Rebecca was bundled up in her new mother’s arms; he waved them through. The next month, a birth certificate arrived from Mexico that listed them as Rebecca Lynn Wilson’s parents, which they thought — incorrectly — was all they needed to render the adoption legal.
Becky, as they called her, “was such a joy, so smart and so loving,” Edmonds, now 62, recalled.
Eventually, Becky learned that she was adopted. “I didn’t think I was any less American.”
After her parents separated, Trimble and her mother moved to Vancouver, Washington. At Hudson’s Bay High School, Becky excelled in her classes, took up bowling and managed the track team.
One of her teachers encouraged the class to register to vote ahead of the 2008 presidential election, and that November, Trimble voted for the only time in her life.
She fell in love with a fellow student, John Trimble, a distance runner who took her to the prom. After high school, the couple decided to get married and thought about a road trip to Canada for their honeymoon.
In the spring of 2012, Rebecca Trimble applied for an enhanced ID, an alternative to a passport that Americans can use to enter the United States from Canada or Mexico.
A clerk studied her Mexican birth certificate, handed it back to her and said that Trimble had to show further proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a naturalization certificate. She was stumped.
“I go to my mom and ask her questions, and she doesn’t know. John and I started researching,” she recalled.
Only much later did the extent of the problems with how her parents handled her adoption become apparent. Before leaving Mexico, Rebecca Trimble’s parents should have obtained official custody of their new baby from a Mexican judge and then secured an immigrant visa for her at a U.S. consulate.
In February, Rebecca Trimble received a two-page decision denying her a green card.
The denial stated that on Jan. 17, 2008, she had illegally registered to vote and that she had then voted in a general election that November. “Therefore, your application must be and hereby is denied,” it said.
Trimble had 33 days to depart the country, or face deportation.
“I felt I had no identity at that moment. I meant nothing,” she said, her voice breaking.
In March, the Trimbles’ lawyer, Margaret Stock, filed a motion to reopen Trimble’s case, and the Bethel City Council passed a resolution urging federal representatives and agencies to recognize “the uniqueness of Rebecca Trimble’s situation.”
Last month, Immigration Services declined the request. Stock’s next move is to sue the agency in federal court to secure a green card or citizenship for her client.
Both Alaska senators have introduced a private bill “for the relief of Becky Trimble” that would be required to pass the House and the Senate, a process that could take years.
Rebecca Trimble, whose legal bills have mounted, has not been informed that a deportation case has commenced against her, perhaps because the coronavirus pandemic has slowed immigration enforcement.
For now, she is trying to resume what she called “a quiet, normal life.” On Jay’s birthday, she baked lemon cake with tundra-blueberry frosting, and the family celebrated on Zoom with friends and relatives. She tried to suppress fears of immigration agents showing up to take her away.