An interview with Anissa, a deported adoptee

Anissa Druesedow is a deported Jamaican adoptee living without citizenship, a mother, an activist fighting for the Adoptee Citizenship Act, and a leader in Adoptees for Justice. She lives in Central America Panama. Anissa was deported in Central America Panama and has been waiting to come home ever since.

a sepia toned photo of a young Anissa smiles into the camera
Anissa as a child.
What was your life like before you were adopted?

I was born in Jamaica in 1970. My mother moved to Panama when I was 4 years old and then abandoned me and my younger sister with my grandfather. That was a horrible experience because we suffered sexual abuse by my uncles, but when we told my grandfather, he accused us of lying and sent us to an orphanage. At the orphanage, my sister and I weren’t fed properly and we would get donations from 

the U.S. military, the donations would come in and they would take pictures with us and send the pictures back to the States and then take all of the gifts away. When I was 11 years old, my sister and I were adopted by a military family. My adoptive father was a  U.S. Sergeant who had been serving in Panama. We were even almost “US Army Family of the Year” and were flown all the way to Washington D.C. to have our pictures taken.

What was your life like after you were adopted? 

 Growing up in America, I always felt different because I was adopted. This became worse when I turned 13 because I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in my left leg that caused me to lose my leg three inches above the knee. I would hear, “Don’t be ungrateful–if you were not adopted you would have been dead from cancer.”

A young preteen Anissa is seated at a school desk and smiles at the camera
Anissa smiles at her desk at school.

After I graduated from high school, my mother pushed me to marry for insurance purposes. She told me, “you need someone to cover your leg costs once you graduate you won’t be covered by your father’s insurance.” He turned out to be physically abusive and pushed me down the stairs three months after having my daughter, Vanessa. After that, I knew I had to leave him because I didn’t want that kind of life for Vanessa.

When I told my mother I was leaving, she pressured me to stay because “who would marry a woman with one leg and a child.” After I left him, she told me I made my bed and I need to lay in it.

What circumstances led to your deportation? 

Life as a single mother with zero support was hard and I took a seasonal position at a retail store to pay heating bills and be able to afford Christmas gifts for Vanessa. Things were going well for a while and I even earned enough to fix up my car a little. One day, an old high school friend came to the

store to return gifts but couldn’t find her receipt. She asked me to help her out so I did. I put the money back on her card and didn’t think anything more about it.

A few months later, the sheriff came knocking on my door asking questions. When I told them what my friend had told me and that I’d helped her out because she was my friend, they arrested me. When I went to my initial interview with the court, I learned my friend only got 6 months of weekends and the interviewer said she would recommend the same sentence for me. But then the public defender told me I’d get 1-3 years. I began panicking thinking “who is going to provide for Vanessa?” But I was told if I accepted a plea, my work would write a letter and I’d get out on work release in six weeks.

What was your experience like with ICE and the U.S. Immigration system?

When I was incarcerated, ICE came to see me. I didn’t know who they were or what ICE even stood for. I got confused because they started asking me “what border did you cross?” and I was like “huh, I’m an American, I was adopted”. When they left, I thought I was fine because I was adopted, but then ICE came back and told me I wasn’t a citizen and I was going to be deported.*

*Note: Anissa’s parents filled out the proper paperwork for her naturalization, but the U.S. government failed to issue her legal permanent residency (green card) until 6 years later which made her ineligible for citizenship because she was over 18. Neither she nor her parents were ever notified.

I called my mom and I told my mom, “I just got an order of deportation.” Her response was “how is that possible?” and that she’d talk to a lawyer. The last time we spoke, my mom said that she wouldn’t be talking to me anymore since she could get in trouble for child trafficking because of how my adoption paperwork was handled. She said they did the best they could, and this was happening to me because I broke the law. They didn’t even show up for court. Meanwhile, because of my disability, I was placed in an infirmary where I was locked in for 23 hours of the day with one hour to shower and make phone calls.

I cashed out my 401k to get a lawyer, but then she passed away from an asthma attack. I was going to cash out a second one to hire another lawyer, when one of the ICE Agents said “Ripley, you’re not the first adoptee to be deported and you won’t be the last.” He convinced me that I would be deported no matter what and it would be easier to fight from the outside. What could I do? I only had one leg and my prosthetic was broken. The ICE agents often didn’t even shackle me saying “well where she’s gonna go?”

Can you share a little about what your life was like after you were deported?
Anissa and her daughter Vanessa, a toddler, smile into the camera in this portrait.

When I was deported to Jamaica, the Jamaican government didn’t believe I belonged and I had to explain that I was adopted. I was scared because I was in a foreign country, separated from all of my family and I had nowhere to go. Eventually, I was able to cash out my second 401k to rent a room and bring 

Vanessa to Jamaica. Money went quickly because I didn’t know how to cook Jamaican food so I could only buy Americanized food like mac and cheese which is extremely expensive in Jamaica. I started attending church and it was there that I met my current husband, Damion. I wasn’t looking for a husband, but he found me somehow. I said, “I won’t be staying here, I’m going back” and he said ‘Well, I’ll go with you.” Damion has been my rock, but it’s still hard to be apart from my family and daughter.

I saw more opportunity for better paying jobs in Panama, but I didn’t speak Spanish. Vanessa and I moved to Panama and I got a job at a call center (the highest paying job I could find) where I made $3.47 an hour. Life in Panama was hard and neither of us spoke Spanish. We found a house in a dangerous place called Veracruz. I was even robbed at gunpoint. I also had a hard time clothing myself and Vanessa while putting food on the table. “Being poor in the US is one thing but being poor in a third world country is another.” What’s worse, since I speak English the people here assume I’m an American and I have money.

I don’t get any COVID assistance that the government here is giving out because they assume I’m American. I can’t get health insurance because my cancer is a pre-existing condition and when I went to the free clinic the doctor wouldn’t treat me because of my accent and told me I could afford the real clinic. It’s hard with my prosthetic–I could only get a new one because of donations from adoptees back in the U.S. I can’t lie on my stomach because I have a very large uterine fibroid that needs surgery but I can’t afford it. The U.S. doesn’t want me and Panama doesn’t know what to do with me. Life is very hard here. It’s a struggle everyday.

Can you share more about how being deported has affected you and your daughter, Vanessa?

When Vanessa was in high school, a friend from church suggested I send her back to the U.S. to get her GED. Sending her back was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life, but I did it because I knew she could have a better life. I only see her every 2-3 years. I want to be there for her, hold her when she cries, be her mom. But it’s very hard, I can’t do anything for her and I can’t even afford to help her when she needs it. I’m very proud of her, and I know it’s hard on her too. We were supposed to have our Christmas in April this year but it had to be cancelled because of COVID. My sister just passed away this year and I had to say goodbye to her over Skype. Vanessa is almost 30. What if she has kids? I don’t want to be a grandma through skype.

What do you want us here in the U.S. to know about the adoptee citizenship crisis?

Before I was deported, I never intended to leave the U.S., I never even had a passport. If adoption is supposed to be a forever happy family, why am I deported? The phrase “adoptee without citizenship” is mind-boggling. I don’t believe that makes any sense. Adoption was never presented to me, or to any other adoptee, as a temporary solution.

We [adoptees without citizenship] should not be deported. I should not be here having this conversation with you, I should be at home dealing with whatever life throws at me. To be separated from my only child, because I don’t want her to live here and to have to go through this kind of suffering, separated from the only culture she knew…And at that time I had to decide basically what was best for her and not what’s best for me.

It’s a struggle every day to live here. I want to go home to continue providing for my daughter. I broke the law and I served my time. I’ve learned from my mistakes, but I still feel like I’m locked up.

When the Adoptee Citizenship Act is passed, what do you want to do first?

I want to spend so much time with Vanessa until we’re both a little bit sick of each other. I want to make sure Vanessa doesn’t have to go through what I had to go through to make ends meet. I want to buy a home and pick up and try to make whatever time I have left counts for something. I want to put this behind us like a bad dream.

Anissa, Damian, and Vanessa smile in the car
Anissa, Damion, and Vanessa.
Hear Anissa share her story and advocate for herself and other adoptees without citizenship below:

Adoptees On – Podcast July 3rd, 2020

Anissa and Vanessa – Not Your Orphan Video Channel March 26, 2020

Anissa – Lost Daughters Blog March 6, 2015