Leland Davidson's U.S. citizenship came into question last summer — as it has been for a growing number of Canadian-born Americans — when he was planning a trip to British Columbia and applied for an enhanced Washington driver's license. In a ceremony Tuesday, the 95-year-old Centralia man was finally granted a certificate of citizenship.

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For all his life, 95-year-old Leland Davidson had been what you might call an undocumented American.

Until now.

Born in Canada to American parents who moved him to the United States when he was 5, Davidson grew up and lived his life like any other American. He started voting as soon as he could, obtained a Social Security number when he was 21 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Yet his U.S. citizenship, automatically derived from his parents, came into question last summer — as it has been for a growing number of Canadian-born Americans — when he was planning a trip to British Columbia and applied for an enhanced Washington driver’s license.

The licenses are for U.S. citizens only — allowing re-entry into the United States from Canada. Davidson was shocked when Department of Licensing staff told him: “You’re still a Canadian.”

After months untangling his status, the Centralia man Tuesday received a long-overdue recognition of his U.S. citizenship, when he and 51 others — most of them children — were granted certificates of citizenship.

Receiving the certificate didn’t make Davidson feel too different, but he said it was comforting to his family.

“They’re probably relieved that I wasn’t deported as an illegal alien,” he said, which elicited chuckles from his relatives. Twenty-eight family members came to see Davidson at the ceremony.

To be clear, those receiving certificates at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ceremony in Tukwila were already U.S. citizens — having derived it in some fashion from their parents.

They simply had nothing to show for it.

Most came to this country with their parents, who later became citizens. Those under 18 automatically derive citizenship from them, and the certificate they receive at the ceremony serves as proof of that.

Others receiving the certificate were either adopted by American parents or, like Davidson, born abroad to American parents.

He never got a passport

In the years since the United States began requiring proof of citizenship to re-enter the country from Canada, untold numbers of Americans born in Canada have scrambled to sort out their citizenship.

Many of them were born on Canadian soil to American parents working along the border, said Blaine immigration attorney Len Saunders, who has had many such clients.

They’d lived most of their lives in the United States believing — rightly — that they were American, but never having to prove it until now.

“It’s very common for someone to have lived here their entire lives … without ever documenting their U.S. citizenship,” Saunders said.

For his part, Davidson never had much reason to.

Before he enlisted in the Navy in 1940, he inquired about his eligibility and was told his place of birth was not a hindrance.

He never got a passport because he never traveled overseas. But over the years, he and his wife would go to Canada, where he still has relatives, using a driver’s license to get back and forth. “I don’t recall anyone asking me about my citizenship,” he said.

That all changed two years ago when the U.S. government began requiring a passport or other proof of citizenship for those coming into the United States from Canada.

Last summer, he and his wife applied for an enhanced Washington driver’s license; Davidson still drives. His wife, born in Yakima, was approved but Davidson was denied.

State licensing officials say they anticipated similar problems when they first introduced enhanced licenses and ID cards, including from those born at a time in this country when birth records were not strictly kept.

They created an exception for those born on or before 1935, who may produce alternate proof of citizenship such as a parent’s marriage certificate or school records. But having presented his Canadian birth certificate, Davidson wasn’t granted that option.

When he told licensing staff his parents were American, they told him he needed proof they had registered his birth abroad. His family couldn’t find the evidence.

His daughter, Rose Schoolcraft, recalls the frustration as the family searched futilely for a solution, discovering that one form after another that might recognize his citizenship either required the signature of his long-dead parents or that the time for completing the form had long passed.

“At one point, we were told to leave it alone because he could possibly be deported or lose his Social Security benefits,” she said.

It wasn’t until Davidson told his story to the local newspaper that they began seeing results. Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman for Immigration Services, contacted Davidson to tell him he needed to complete a special form, called an N-600, to obtain a certificate of citizenship. Along with the form, Davidson mailed copies of U.S. census forms from 1880, 1910 and 1920 that included his parents’ names, as well as proof they were U.S. citizens born in this country.

Davidson said his family has been talking again about going to Canada this summer. He’ll probably go: “I didn’t know how much longer I was gonna be around,” he said. He’s most looking forward to visiting his cousin Chuck, also 95, in Vanderhoof, B.C.

Davidson waited to receive his certificate of citizenship with his wife, Irene, by his side. They’ve been married 51 years.

Irene Davidson, 89, thought it was “grand” that her husband went through the ceremony. But even when his citizenship status was unclear, it didn’t change anything to her.

“It didn’t matter to me,” she said. “I loved him anyway.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com