SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys are scrambling to find a way to prevent the deportation of a woman who was adopted from an orphanage in India as a 3-month-old baby following a determination by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that she is in the country illegally.
Kairi Abha Shepherd's adoptive mother died when she was 8 years old, never having filed citizenship paperwork, her attorney Alan L. Smith of Salt Lake City said.
The Denver-based appellate court earlier this month upheld an immigration court's ruling that Shepherd, now 30, is too old to qualify for automatic citizenship under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 that applies to children from foreign countries who are adopted by Americans.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began efforts to deport Shepherd in 2007 after she was jailed in Salt Lake City for probation violation of a 2004 guilty plea to a felony charge of forgery. ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Shepherd's conviction was an aggravated felony, making her an immigration enforcement priority.
Shepherd has no family or contacts in India.
"I think she took a geography class in high school where she learned about India," Smith said. "She doesn't speak the language, she has no connection whatsoever. She's American through and through."
In a statement issued through Smith, Shepherd said she suffers from multiple sclerosis and has other health issues.
"The deportation order which may force me to part from my physicians, family, and friends here, could be a death sentence to me," she said.
Smith and other attorneys are donating their time to reverse Shepherd's deportation order and help her gain legal status, he said. Their options include appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Indian government to deny travel documents, or asking a state court judge to allow Shepherd to withdraw her felony guilty plea. Smith said Shepherd had assumed she was a U.S. citizen at the time she pleaded guilty to a felony, not knowing it would end up getting her deported.
Officials at the Consulate General of India in San Francisco did not immediately return messages.
A 2008 Salt Lake City Tribune column described Shepherd's mother, Erlene Shepherd, as someone who would try to save the world, pay 50 cents a day to sponsor a dozen children around the world and take in every lost pet she found.
Smith said Erlene Shepherd adopted three children from the United States, three from Thailand, and two from India, including a boy who died before Kairi Shepherd was adopted as a baby.
A widow and single mother to seven children, Erlene Shepherd died in 1991 of breast cancer, never having filed the proper paperwork for Kairi Shepherd, her youngest child. Kairi Shepherd went to live with one of her adoptive siblings, a sister, until she was 14, and then an adoptive brother until she graduated from high school, Smith said. A sibling said their mother had filed the proper paperwork for her other children.
Messages left for Shepherd's siblings by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Shepherd worked at odd jobs, in grocery stores and in fast food. In 2003, authorities in two Utah counties charged her with crimes including felony forgery for falsifying checks to pay for a drug habit.
She pleaded guilty in March 2004 in Salt Lake County to a misdemeanor charge of attempted forgery and was sentenced to 68 days in jail, probation, and ordered to pay a $750 fine. In May of that year, she pleaded guilty to forgery, in a separate case, to a third-degree felony in Ogden. Misdemeanor charges of theft and receiving stolen property were dropped.
She was ordered to pay $300 in restitution, plus $1,055 in court fees, and placed on probation and received a five year suspended prison sentence. Smith said she has repaid most of the money, with part of that debt suspended while her immigration case is pending.
After her felony conviction she went in and out of jail for failing to comply with probation, which included completing drug treatment programs, not using drugs and not associating with those who use drugs.
It was during one of those stays in jail in October 2007 that she came to the attention of ICE agents at the Salt Lake County Jail. She said she spent most of 2008 in ICE detention and she is now out of ICE custody and awaiting the outcome of her deportation order issued in February 2010.
Smith said Shepherd is currently unable to work and is relying on the help of friends to live. Smith wouldn't disclose too much about her living situation but said she is not in hiding.
"She's got herself in a fix because of her behavior, but on the other hand, the world has dealt her a bad hand with people, which a child should be able to count on," Smith said. "Adults, government, adoption agencies ... She fell between the cracks."
Congress passed a law granting automatic citizenship to foreign adopted children, but it applied to those who were under 18 on February, 27, 2001, when it took effect. Shepherd, born on April 1, 1982, is 11 months too old to qualify, the courts ruled in declaring her an "alien."
"There are thousands of people who were internationally adopted and aren't U.S. citizens," said Chuck Johnson, spokesman for the Washington-based National Council For Adoption. "They're finding out that they don't have it (citizenship) when they apply for scholarships, passports, the military, or in tragic cases, they have committed a crime, they're considered an immigrant and they're deported.'"
Efforts are under way to lobby Congress for a law granting citizenship to those adopted by Americans in other countries possibly as far back to the 1940s when such adoptions became popular, Johnson said. "People don't associate foreign country adoption with immigration. For law abiding citizens and minors, it's a non-issue."