An Adoptee Nation

Getting an original birth certificate to comply with the Real ID act is a big challenge for some adoptees

As states like New Mexico try to come into compliance with the federal Real ID Act, lost in the political controversy playing out at the Roundhouse and what’s shaping up to be the nation’s future in a terrorism-obsessed world are untold numbers who were born here but don’t have the papers to prove it.

Forget for a minute about the estimated 70,000 people who live in the Land of Enchantment but lack citizenship documents. Put aside the present preoccupation on whether they will be allowed to obtain regular state driver's licenses or some second-tier driver's privilege card.

Off-stage and to the left is another group already dealing with Real ID in real time.

They might be elderly, homeless or impoverished. But not necessarily. They're also baby boomers born inside an adobe home in Northern New Mexico and for whom a birth certificate was never even filed. They're Natives whose family ties have been severed beyond their control. Or they're not sure what story to tell because they don't know who their parents are. They are adoptees. Some lack basic information about where a birth certificate might have been issued. For many, the document is under lock and key, because laws in dozens of states restrict access to them.

"It's an issue that impacts adopted persons in the majority of US states, regardless of when they were born and adopted," says Kim Paglino, a program manager for the Donaldson Adoption Institute, an adoption advocacy group. "Most states do not allow adopted persons to access their original birth certificate. It's time to end the secrecy by making birth certificates more available and not something to hide."

Only 13 states allow unfettered access to birth certificates and adoption papers, with the vast majority restricting all information unless it comes by court order, New Mexico among them. LeAnne Parsons, a Los Alamos resident who advocates for adoptees, says the state "is definitely a closed state."

When a New Mexico parent puts a child up for adoption, a new birth record is created and the original birth certificate is sealed. In that case, getting a copy of the original requires a court order.

Adoptees don't always know simple details like the county they were born in or other facts that would establish their right to an original document under our state laws. Altered birth certificates are common among adoptees and often satisfy state and federal requirements, but even they are hard to come by among those who were born decades ago.

"The Real ID Act will definitely be a channel worth monitoring and could start the conversation on the second or third forms of identification that adoptees will need," says April Dinwoodie, Donaldson's chief executive.

"On paper, we've literally disappeared into the American landscape," says Trace Lara Hentz, 59, a Greenfield, Mass., adoptee who shared her story with SFR. For decades, she's been trying to get her birth certificate from the state of Minnesota, but to no avail, and now she worries about how the Real ID Act will make her life harder without the document.

"It's criminal neglect in my mind," Hentz claims, "how certain states would refuse us these documents and that the federal government would write an act that wouldn't even consider us."

She is just one among millions of adoptees in the country, comprising nearly 4 percent of the nation's population, more than a few of whom are struggling to find their original birth certificates, according to figures from the Donaldson Institute.

In New Mexico, there's already a rush for birth certificates to comply with the Real ID Act.

In the last two years, nearly 250,000 people have requested birth certificates from the Health Department's Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics in Santa Fe, and 64 percent of the requests (about 160,000) have been made since July.

Kenny Vigil, a department spokesman who provided those figures, says that's a notable increase, but he wouldn't speculate about the possible reasons behind the spike. He also refused to arrange an interview with the records bureau chief.

Clerks at the office confirmed that plenty of applicants said they were working to obtain US passports and that the requests really picked up over the holidays last year. That's right around the time that the feds claimed New Mexico's state IDs might no longer be accepted on commercial airlines and US passports were the only alternative.

Already a multitude of Native American adoptees are trying to find their original birth certificates to prove US citizenship, in what perhaps is the height of irony, given that they've long been regarded as the first people to live here, but now they have to prove it.

Leland Morrill, 49, is one of them.

Although Morrill has since secured an affidavit of birth from the Navajo Nation and met his father at a Santo Domingo Pueblo feast day last year, the hunt for his birth certificate to get a Real ID-compliant driver's license was time consuming.

It didn't start until after he lost his old California driver's license on the way home from the store in Los Angeles in December 2009. Struggling to balance the multitude of plastic bags of groceries, he misplaced it somewhere. When he went to apply for a new one in the beginning of 2010, clerks told him that his baptismal record from his adoptive Mormon parents did not suffice.

It was pursuit of proof of his US citizenship that opened up doors to who he was, ultimately resulting in a reunion when he finally met his father, Edward Pacheco.

The 72-year-old Pacheco told him that he'd been fighting the Vietnam War when his mother, Linda Kirk, died in an automobile accident in September 1968, apparently falling asleep at the wheel on her way to Albuquerque from Santo Domingo Pueblo to get to her day job as a federal clerk.

That left Morrill, who still doesn't know the exact name on his birth certificate, in the care of his maternal grandparents. He became the property of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Indian Hospital in Gallup after he stumbled into an open pit fire on the Navajo Nation.

"I still have the scar from the skin graft on the bottom of my foot," he tells SFR in an interview from Los Angeles, where the Brigham Young University graduate works as a marketer for a jewelry store. "It's one of those major life-changing moments, and you can't help to equate the problem to the injustices and the economic disparities found on the reservations."

Then the day came when a young Mormon couple, incapable of having children of their own, stepped in to adopt Morrill in what he now likens to "a form of human trafficking."

"We were commodities. They made money taking care of us," he says of his other nine Native American brother and sisters; they lived all over, from Brantford, Ontario, Canada, where he was baptized in a river at the age of 8, to Rapid City, SD, where he graduated from high school.

He was versed in Mormon scripture while his adoptive father worked for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writing educational material for textbooks and moving to different towns for the job. His adoptive mother was a strict housewife, and punishments with a wooden stick left welts.

It was a household that wasn't poor, by any means, yet wasn't very loving either.

There were no hugs or kisses or "I love yous" growing up, so Morrill had long grown accustomed to the lack of emotion and wasn't taken aback when it came to time to meet his father and the cool and calm greeting that ensued between the two: a handshake.

"He's of that era, in the 1940s, when Native Americans were forced to leave the reservations, and they were sent off to boarding schools to assimilate," he tells SFR. "They lived apart from their families, too, just like I did, just in a different setting and a different set of circumstances."

Besides, he adds, giving his father the ultimate benefit of the doubt, "he was busy with the Turquoise Clan that day, but I did get to meet my aunts and my uncles and my cousins."

Mind you, none of this would have happened had Morrill never lost his California license and joined the countless other ID-less citizens in the inner cities of America. Los Angeles police arrested him one night in March 2010, as they were searching for someone else who had committed a crime.

"I didn't have an ID on me, and by law, if you're detained, you need to produce one," says Morrill, who spent the weekend in the Los Angeles County lock-up.

It was a time in his life when he was struggling financially, having lost his job handling investments for Fidelity during the subprime loan era, and now he had to secure a birth certificate.

Ultimately, he tracked down Bob Kirk, his mother's brother. He conducted an online search of property records in Sanders, Ariz., on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation, and then hopped a Greyhound to get there. It turns out that Uncle Bob knew someone who worked in Window Rock's bureau of vital statistics on the Navajo Nation. An affidavit of birth was drawn up with the birthdate Oct. 10, 1966, then issued to him in April 11, 2011.

It was sufficient for him to get his Real ID-compliant California driver's license a few days later, but it's due for renewal this fall, and he's crossing his fingers that the process will be purely electronic and that he won't have to worry about his real birth certificate. Which, by the way, he now believes could be found at the Albuquerque Indian Hospital.

Yet life is good today: He lives in a rent-controlled apartment in downtown Los Angeles, paying less than $600 a month, and he's clawing his way back up again, in terms of income.

He earned a bachelor's in business administration with a minor in accounting in 1988. And he's got an accomplished résumé from past jobs, which range from writing employee manuals for the Federal Reserve to conducting insurance audits for AIS Insurance and researching interest rates for Fidelity.

He still wonders, though, what things would have been like, had he not walked into that open fire pit. Right now, he figures, he'd probably be able to speak another language, a dialect associated with the Navajo Nation, some of whose members became famous for breaking codes during World War II.

Or he could be familiar with the language of the Santo Domingo Pueblo and now be a government worker or member of the military, a common path taken by many of his cousins.

"I lost out on the cultural connections and my blood family, but I gained a little," he says. "But it's a toss-up. Which life would have been better for me? I think it might have been worse growing up in poverty on the Navajo Nation, but then again …"

His voice trails off. Second guesses. They're common among adoptees who find out the truth, and something Hentz knows plenty about.

She first discovered the name of her birth mother at the age of 22, after pleading with a Wisconsin Superior Court judge, who broke the law and unsealed a wealth of information for her. She now regards the event as a stroke of luck of being in the right place at the right time before the right judge and emitting more than a little passion.

She remains eternally grateful.

For a while, there was a time when she sang in a rock and roll band in her early 20s and didn't even want to date anybody for fear they could turn out to be a relative.

"And I'm not the only out there who's been adopted and am thinking this way," Hentz says. "This sort of stuff runs through our heads."

Her amended birth certificate, the product of the state of Wisconsin, contains what she believes to be her birthdate, Sept. 9, 1956, but she says it'd be nice to have the real one in hand.

"Both my birth parents are dead," says Hentz, who lives in Massachusetts and has changed her name legally, choosing to do away with Tracy Ann DeMeyer, the name given to her by her adoptive parents. "It's very painful to me to not have access to it. It's my identity, not theirs. These are old laws. People need to know who they are. It's just unjust, barbaric."

What's more, there's a potential problem with the amended birth certificate: It wasn't issued to her until 1958, two years after her birth, which makes it look incredibly fake. Although it's fared well all these years, when she had to stick it in the mail to get a US passport, she'd thought she'd never see it again.

The good news is, it came back, and she was able to secure a US passport in 2005, but as she sees it, there's no reason why the real document should remain inaccessible.

Regardless, she did manage to track down her father, Earl Bland, who was Shawnee and Cherokee and grew up in Pana, Il. It took her nearly two decades to do so, finally meeting him by driving from Seattle to Illinois in 1994, as he was dying of emphysema.

He filled her in on how her mother, Helen Thrall, a French Canadian, had left him in Chicago and went to Minnesota to give birth.

He worked for International Harvester and went on to have five children, whom Hentz now knows well, considering herself lucky to have an extended family that's so close to her after years of not knowing one another.

Yet that's not always the outcome. When Hentz tracked down her mother, Thrall said she didn't want to communicate. It can be a lonely feeling for adoptees searching for the truth they may not want to discover, and Hentz fears that it could pick up speed under the Real ID Act and its demand for original birth certificates.

"There are hundreds of thousands of adoptees out there like me," she says. "While I understand the need for security, I don't think we're going about it the right way."

The Department of Homeland Security downplays the entire scenario, saying Real ID is not intended to be a form of national identification or a punitive measure but an attempt to make all state licenses more consistent. The lines of political demarcation have blurred as well, with the ACLU-NM in Albuquerque and the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington DC at odds with each other, just as they're fighting over the same issue in the Roundhouse.

Peter Simonson, the executive director of the ACLU-NM, says the Real ID Act is framed as a security tool against terrorism, but in the process, there is no doubt that everyday American citizens are losing their rights by having to comply with it.

The government is leaving people with no choice, he says, because if you don't have a card, then you're going to be singled out by the states and the federal government, which is discrimination.

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck," Simonson says.

On the flipside, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank that advocates for tighter control on immigration, dismisses that argument.

"The thing is you can't pick and choose who's a terrorist," Krikorian says. "We need to go through the rigmarole, because we have an ID system that if it can be penetrated by a Honduran dishwasher, then it can be exploited by an ISIS terrorist."

At presstime, it appeared New Mexico has reached a compromise on how to handle the Real ID issue for now. The Legislature sent a bill to the governor that establishes a two-tiered system that offers the state's 2 million residents a choice: Present your birth certificate and/or US passport and qualify for a Real ID-compliant license or get another kind of ID that might keep you out of jail but also might put a target on your back.

The governor has said she'll sign it. Yet the search for answers—and documents—by adoptees and others who find themselves without their papers in order, goes on.

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