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Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
John Garman moves a resident's belongings to a new apartment as part of his job. He has no Social Security number.

John Garman's dream might not seem like much. But for someone who has spent nearly a decade struggling to prove his nationality, the possibility of being able to hold a valid Utah ID is priceless.

"I'm working under the table," said Garman, who for years has lived essentially without a country. "I don't have a life outside of keeping my head above water."

Garman, 33, was adopted by an American family as a child. Yet he hasn't been eligible to apply for citizenship because of a felony conviction at age 18 for a string of burglaries. And he has no official record of his actual birth. His only photo identification is his prison ID.

For years, the only evidence Garman has had of his birth was a delayed registration of birth — issued in Merced County, Calif., when he was adopted — which said he was born in Tijuana, Mexico. But that was never verified, according to the Merced County Human Services Agency.

"Because of this error, the minor is a person without a country. He is unable to obtain citizenship in any country at this time," the agency said in a petition filed in court last year, seeking to remove Tijuana from Garman's record.

The statement could be true, since in order to prove Mexican citizenship he would need a document issued in that country, according to the Salt Lake Mexican Consulate.

But all that is set to change. As a result of Garman's petition, the California Department of Public Health is issuing him a new delayed birth registration, which shows Livingston, Calif., as Garman's birth place.

He hopes to be able to use that to get a valid Social Security number and with it an American identity.

"My situation makes me unique, it makes me who I am," he says. "If I survived this long, imagine what I can do with a Social Security number."

But even with the new birth certificate, Garman says his troubles aren't over. He's facing a misdemeanor domestic violence charge after an alleged altercation with his now ex-girlfriend.

He worries now that after losing so much time, he could lose even more. If convicted, he faces up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000.

"I did seven years (incarcerated), and that scared me enough, realizing that's time wasted," he says. "I've been doing this for (another) eight years. My life's gone. I don't want to lose any more of it."

For now, Garman carries his life in a black zipper-binder. Everything from records of his immunizations and report cards from grade school to copies of various applications he's filed to try to gain some status. There are also tattered notes he's written to himself, along with business cards and hand-jotted phone numbers for attorneys and congressmen.

For eight years, he's been drifting. Living with friends, following jobs from California to Oregon to Oklahoma to Utah.

For now, he's living with a married couple, who asked not to be identified because his felony record prevents them from adding him to the lease.

His roommate, who met Garman at a barbecue, admits that when she first saw Garman, "he was kinda scary looking."

But after learning his story and discovering his personality — and cooking skills — she quickly became a friend.

"I love him to death," she said. "He's like my angel ... I can't wait to see what he's going to be when he gets that (birth registration)."

Garman did not realize he wasn't a citizen until 1999, when he unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a Social Security number so he could get a job as a condition of his parole. He's been trying to prove he's a citizen ever since.

"You get your hopes up so bad," Garman sighed. "You found this, you found that ... everything's been denied. ... The ups and downs, I get my hopes up so much."

If you're wondering how someone can end up in this predicament, flash back to 1979. That's when a baby sitter turned a 4-year-old boy over to authorities, saying his mother had not returned for him after four days.

At that point Garman, whose birth name was apparently Raul Lopez, was placed in protective custody. A few days later, his mother, Raquel Lopez, reappeared, according to his adoption records. She wanted to reclaim her son, and it looked like she was taking steps in that direction. However, after a visit to her son at a foster home, Raquel wasn't seen or heard from again.

Then, in 1983, Garman was adopted by Josephine and J.R. Garman. Tijuana, Mexico, was listed as his birthplace on a delayed registration of birth. He automatically became a legal permanent resident, but his adoptive parents — both now deceased — apparently never petitioned for his citizenship.

Rhonda Walton, a former caseworker with Merced County Human Services, has helped Garman with applications through the State Department, with the former Immigration and Naturalization Services and with members of Congress.

She points to the uncertainty of Garman's records, saying, "Our files had two different birth dates, and one had to be picked." And, she says, it was never verified that Raquel Lopez was actually Garman's mother.

"None of that's ever been established," she said. "We've never found a record of his birth. ... There really is no original birth certificate."

Josephine died when Garman was 12, and he says he was sent to live in a group home until he was 16. He didn't get along with his father and he wound up on the streets until his conviction — which revoked his green card.

"I thought I was a normal kid," he says. "I didn't know the aspects of it."

Garman has tried various avenues since then to try to prove some sort of status. Changing his birth location to Livingston, a city some 400 miles north of the Mexico border, is just the latest attempt.

According to documents provided by Garman, he has tried several times to be issued a Social Security number and was successful once. But, he says, the number was later rescinded when the agency realized he didn't qualify.

The documents also show that he tried to claim citizenship under a provision of immigration law that says anyone of "unknown parentage" found under age 5 on U.S. soil is a citizen, unless foreign birth is established before that individual turns 21. That application was denied, as was his application for a passport under the same provisions.

The rejection letter said in part, "your parentage was known.... Because your mother left you with a baby sitter, you were not considered to have been 'found' in the United States.... Your earlier documents consistently stated your birthplace to be Mexico."

He also risked breaking federal law by marrying a U.S. citizen friend to see if he could gain legal status that way.

But even though his then-wife's petition for him was accepted, because of his felony conviction he still would have had to pay a $1,000 penalty and a waiver of deportation, along with his application, said Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That waiver would have required showing his wife would suffer "extreme hardship" if he were deported, according to Garcia-Upson.

Garcia-Upson said there's no record that Garman ever actually filed an application, and he's since divorced his wife, which nullifies her petition on his behalf. Garman says he did go to an interview with an immigration official, who told him he'd need more information before he could apply.

Now that his birthplace will be changed to the United States, Garman may have the proof he needs to obtain a Social Security number. However, because of his age, he'll need an interview to explain why he's never had a number before, said agency spokesman Doug Smith.

To receive a Social Security card, a person needs two documents to prove age, birth date and U.S. citizenship or legal work immigrant status.

If Garman can use his new birth registration to qualify, he says the first thing he'll do is get a state identification card or driver's license. He looks forward to being able to drive without the fear that routine traffic stops could lead to his car being impounded because he has no license, insurance or registration.

Looking to the future, he wants to put to use the knowledge he's gained from years of odd construction jobs by applying for a contractor's license.

And he hopes that soon, "I can get a bank account, a good job, my own house.... I haven't even had a place of my own.... It's going to be a totally different world."

E-mail: [email protected]