Vanessa - daughter of a deported adoptee

Often in adoption we refer to the “triad” to mean adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. But what about the children of adoptees? Those who are another step removed from the knowledge, actions, and choices of the generations prior? What happens when your mom is deported because she didn’t know the status of her own citizenship?

Anissa smiles into the camera holding a smiling toddler Vanessa in her arms

Vanessa was born in Newark, New York. Her mom, Anissa, was adopted from Jamaica by a military family when she was 11. Despite growing up and building a life in the US, Anissa’s parents failed to formalize her citizenship. So when an old high school friend came into her work to return gifts without a receipt, Anissa didn’t think twice about helping her out. A few months later the sheriff questioned her about the transactions and she was arrested. Fearful of what this would mean for her daughter, she accepted a plea deal recommended by her public defender. While incarcerated, Anissa was interrogated by ICE and informed that she was not a US citizen. She would be slated for immediate deportation to Jamaica. During this time, Vanessa moved in with her adopted grandmother who was physically and emotionally abusive — then later moved to Florida to be with her mom’s birth sister all before she turned 13. She joined her mom in Jamaica the summer after eighth grade.

This is Vanessa.

Portrait photo of Vanessa as a toddler posing with an umbrella

When I first moved to Jamaica they wouldn’t let me leave the airport — I was held for two hours. I was terrified. It was my first time leaving the country. People thought I was mute because I didn’t know what people were saying or how to respond. I went from living in a huge home in Florida to a 300 square foot apartment; but daily life was the most fun I’ve ever had because of my mom. We would go to the beach and to the market, eat Jamaican patties, and go to Dunn’s River Falls. We befriended the older lady who rented us the apartment, she let us use the washing machine so my mom didn’t have to do our laundry by hand. My mom even met Damion, my step father — he proposed on her birthday.

At 14, we moved to Panama where my mom’s birth mother lived. She had offered her home to us until she didn’t. Family tensions grew when Damion followed us a few months later so we moved to a town called Veracruz. Panama was worse for everyone. We lived in a dangerous area because it was all we could afford. Our house was broken into 5 times, our dogs were poisoned, my mom was robbed at gunpoint. I saw someone get stabbed with a machete.

So much happened that by the time I was 17 and my mom told me I should leave Panama and move back to the US to complete my education I didn’t hesitate. I was so excited to speak English again and be a regular teenager. I knew I would miss her but I was young — we argued and I rebelled. I didn’t comprehend what the move really meant. Now it’s different. Thinking about how readily I chose to leave my mom after all we had been through is painful. We are so close. She has been my best friend my whole life, my #1 support — but I’ve had to go through so much of my life without her by my side. Since moving back to the states and settling into a basement apartment in Utah, I graduated from an associates degree program, received a master aesthetician licensure, and went from an entry level position at a top tier company to senior management within 5 years. She hasn’t been able to see any of it.

Vanessa smiles into the camera for a selfie with her mom

The reason I’m as strong as I am is because my mom has been supporting me all the way from Panama and has instilled in me a fighter’s mentality. I’m an only child and for the past ten years I’ve seen her a total of four times. I’m almost 30 and for my whole adult life my mom hasn’t been here. I don’t even know what normal is. In a few years I will have lived more of my life without her than with her. What if I have kids? My mom is going to become a grandma over video chat? It’s so hard because I feel like my mom doesn’t know who I am as an adult. She still sees me as the little girl that she sent away.

When I first moved to Utah I buried it all. I wanted to block out the pain and all of the things I had seen. So much has happened. So much damage has been done. It has made me strong and resilient but I would give up my grit in a heartbeat to have my mom here. Both of us assumed she had citizenship because she was adopted. We didn’t know that adoptees born before 1983 weren’t given automatic citizenship as they are today. If only I had thought to ask her about her naturalization. Could she have double checked? Did she have all the paperwork she needed? I was only 13 when she was taken away, but I wish I had known better. Now we just dream about having dinner together.

If this bill is passed it would mean everything to me. Over the past 10 years I haven’t been able to be fully happy. If my mom was able to come back I think I could just feel genuine happiness. I would feel complete, whole, I would have my family back. It would be the last piece in the puzzle.

vanessa and anissa

I want people to know this is an issue. The system is not set up correctly. It is not set up to support us. We have so much to change to do right by our people. This bill is a small step in doing right by the American people that were given the promise of a home.

Vanessa shares her story during a Congressional Briefing on the Adoptee Citizenship Act in July 2019.

Hear Vanessa share her story and advocate for her mother and other adoptees without citizenship below: