PORTLAND — It took nearly 15 years, numerous appeals to lawmakers and a battalion of guardian angel lawyers, but Cerrina Foster finally has a country to call home — and the paperwork to prove it.
Friday, the 14-year-old stood in a federal office, raised her hand along with 12 other people and pledged her loyalty to America. Lots of immigrants do this every year to become naturalized citizens, but Cerrina’s case is different: She’s always been an American citizen; but she never had a birth certificate.
Cerrina was born prematurely in 1999 while her mother was visiting Mexico. Both of her parents were American citizens, but due to her early birth and some language difficulties, she wasn’t issued the correct form for babies born to American parents abroad. No one told her mother such a form was needed. When Crissy Foster brought her daughter home to Longview after the birth, the border guard who let them back into America even congratulated her on what he assumed was Cerrina’s automatic dual-citizenship, she said Friday.
But Cerrina didn’t have citizenship anywhere, as her mother soon learned.
The saga began when Foster and Cerrina still lived in Longview, but they’ve moved several times trying to find more receptive government officials and now live in Springfield, Ore.
The United States wouldn’t issue a birth certificate to Cerrina without the correct paperwork from Mexico. And Mexico also didn’t claim her, because by law she was an American. At first the paperwork glitch seemed minor. But her case dragged on. It took a petition to the Mount Vernon School Board and a conference call with then-Congressman Brian Baird just to get Cerrina enrolled in kindergarten. She couldn’t be on her mother’s health insurance policy without a birth certificate, either.
Each time family members thought they were close to a solution, the law would change or another form would suddenly be required. Meanwhile, Cerrina couldn’t get a learner’s driving permit, a job or even volunteer without a birth certificate. She was a straight-A student, but she wouldn’t have been able to attend college if the situation had not been resolved.
Cerrina has plans to run a vet hospital that includes a grooming and training business. She’s already drawn out the floor plans. So not being able to go to college was unthinkable.
Every agency agreed she met the qualifications for U.S. citizenship, but no one knew what was needed to get the right documents issued. She also couldn’t qualify for a green card or Visa, because she wasn’t immigrating from somewhere else.
“She’s countryless,” Foster said Thursday while still fearing some last-minute glitch would derail Friday’s plans. “Usually that’s for people like terrorists or refugees. Or (federal documents-leaker) Edward Snowden, who gave up citizenship and hasn’t been accepted elsewhere.”
“It’s a unique case,” said Rebecca Russell, the Lake Oswego immigration lawyer who agreed to take on Cerrina’s case for free about a year ago. “And our system is not set up for unique cases … or ones that don’t fit inside the box.”
Russell threw the case out to a computer network of experienced immigration lawyers. They eventually figured out a way to petition for citizenship that didn’t require a birth certificate or passport. Another round of paperwork was submitted and last week Cerrina got a letter in the mail inviting her to Friday’s ceremony to receive a certificate of citizenship. With that, she’ll now be able to apply for a passport and a birth certificate.
After the years of struggle, the ceremony itself was remarkably brief.
Participants sang the National Anthem, said the Pledge of Allegiance and then took the oath of citizenship and were handed a certificate proclaiming them once and for all Americans.
And then Cerrina — sporting a huge smile — was mobbed by her mother, brother and stepfather and other well wishers.
“Welcome home American,” Foster said as she hugged her daughter. “I’m so glad this is behind us.”
How does it feel to officially be an American?
“I already was,” Cerrina said with a smile.
How does it feel to have proof?
“It’s awesome!,” she said. “I can’t wait to vote. And to go to college. But right now I just want to go get some ice cream.”