A way out of no way out is perhaps the best description of a two-year-plus journey to citizenship for Laila (last name withheld to protect privacy), a Catholic Charities’ Immigration Program client.
“Laila’s case is perhaps one of the most complicated our department ever managed,” says Luz Ostrognai, Supervisor of the Catholic Charities Immigration Program. “We have a three-inch-thick folder of documents detailing every obstacle she encountered.”
When Laila was nine years old, an American couple traveled to Monrovia, the capital of the West African country of Liberia, to adopt her through the Liberian legal system. Laila, who was then called by her birth name, flew with her new parents to the United States to settle into her new home.
As required by law, her adoptive parents applied for Laila’s Legal Permanent Residency in the United States. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved their request, and Laila received her “green card.”
Although the adoptive parents had completed Liberia’s formal adoption process, they did not file an adoption petition in the United States. Had her parents followed through with finalizing her adoption in the United States, Laila would have met the USCIS requirements to become a U.S. citizen at age nine.
According to Laila, the fact that she was not legally adopted by her parents in the U.S., presented numerous challenges to her childhood education. Laila recalls the schools she attended requesting proof of her legal adoption status. Laila alleges that her mother offered the schools numerous excuses and often promised to bring the documents in at a later date. Because the schools persisted with requiring proper documentation, Laila reports her mother decided to homeschool her instead.
When Laila first came to Catholic Charities, she was already 18, which is the legal cut-off age for conferring citizenship on a child of a U.S. citizen.
Laila says that the homeschooling essentially consisted of her sitting in front of a computer with little help or support from her parents. Naturally curious and intelligent, Laila did not give up and says that she taught herself how to read, write, and solve math problems. Still, Laila reports that her parents required her, even at a very young age, to do many house chores, which kept her from her studies.
Feeling neglected and abused by her adoptive parents, Laila chose to run away at age 15. At first, she slept on friends’ couches. Only a temporary solution, the teen soon became homeless. Even so, Laila reports living on the streets provided a stronger sense of security than living at home.
Laila recalled her adoptive mother once showing her a blue U.S. passport and some other official papers. Before running away, Laila says she convinced her mother to give her copies of at least a few of those documents. But, what little proof of citizenship the teenager possessed when she left home was stolen during her three years on the streets.
At 17, Laila arrived in Fort Wayne, still homeless and now pregnant. A local homeless shelter staff member referred her to Vincent Village for additional support and services. Mercifully, Laila chose life and her child turns three this October. After learning about her precarious legal status, a Vincent Village case manager referred Laila and her infant daughter to the Catholic Charities’ Immigration Program.
Ostrognai began searching for evidence of the single mother’s citizenship immediately. Ostrognai suggested that Laila contact her adoptive mother to request her official documents. While Laila’s adoptive mother followed through, Ostrognai received only barely legible photocopies of the original documents from Liberia, and Laila’s U.S. green card.
Working with the faint photocopies, Ostrognai began her investigation. The U.S. State Department verified that Laila was not a U.S. citizen. Even under Laila’s alleged circumstances of abuse and neglect, USCIS required original documents, and could not accept photocopies.
Because Catholic Charities of Fort Wayne-South Bend is a member of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), Ostrognai enlisted CLINIC’s consultation and reach. Attorneys at CLINIC searched official records both in the U.S. and Liberia. Months later, CLINIC advised that it was unlikely that Laila was eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Regardless, Ostrognai persisted. Twice she submitted Laila’s application for citizenship to USCIS. Both applications were rejected. Over time, Laila’s seemingly impossible case weighed heavily upon Ostrognai. One day, Laila said to Ostragnai, “thank you for not giving up on me!”
Those eight words burned into Ostrognai’s mind and heart. She said to herself, “If I don’t help Laila, nobody else will.” From that moment, the immigration supervisor redoubled her efforts.
Ostrognai continued her research with other Catholic Charities immigration experts across the nation. Again and again, Ostrognai heard the refrain, nothing like Laila’s case had ever resulted in U.S. citizenship. Refusing to give up, Ostrognai placed her trust in Divine Providence. She often prayed, “God, guide me on what to do here!”
Finally, Ostrognai received an email from a USCIS supervisor in Indianapolis with suggestions on how to proceed. The email offered no promises, no guarantees, just hope!
Armed with those suggestions, Ostrognai sent Laila’s citizenship application to USCIS a third time. Fortunately, this time officials in Indianapolis set an appointment for the young mother’s interview with an immigration officer. During this meeting, Laila was asked if she wished to change her name from the one she was given at birth. She replied, “Yes, I do. I want my legal name to be Laila”.
Ostrognai sat in on the unusually long session in Indianapolis along with Laila. At the end, the USCIS officer informed Laila that her application required further review. He could not commit to recommending her for citizenship.
A sense of caution filled Ostrognai on the drive back to Fort Wayne. On one hand, Laila had advanced further into the citizenship process than any immigration or legal expert thought possible. On the other hand, there was not yet any cause for celebration.
About four weeks after the appointment in Indianapolis, Ostrognai received an official letter from USCIS. The letter stated, “On November 30, 2018, at 11 a.m. Laila will be sworn in as U.S. citizen in South Bend’s Federal Building.” Prayers had been answered.
Today, Laila and her daughter are U.S. citizens. They have transitioned from a Vincent Village one-bedroom apartment into a two-story house. Also, as a U.S. citizen, Laila received the privilege of seeking employment.
This month Laila will begin classes to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). Upon completion, she will sit for Indiana’s CNA licensing exam.
After Laila’s citizenship swearing-in ceremony, friends, employees, and volunteers from Catholic Charities, Vincent Village, and Safe Families encircled the new U.S. citizen, and celebrated Laila’s courage, tenacity, and the non-profit agency partnerships that made it all possible.