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Rebecca Walsh: Meth, adoption, deportation

Published July 27, 2008 1:08 am

Discretion is better when used
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Erlene Shepherd was one of those women who is going to save the world - one sponsored child in Guatemala, one stray cat at a time.

Before she died of breast cancer in 1991, Shepherd adopted eight children, paid 50 cents a day for another dozen around the globe and took in every lost pet she found. She kept important documents in two tote bags in her car. They were eventually stolen. And she died before she could file citizenship papers for her youngest - a little girl adopted at 3 months old from India.

None of those details should matter.

Except that 12 years later, Kairi Shepherd got caught forging checks to pay for her meth habit. Erlene Shepherd's quirky record-keeping went on trial. And as a result, her daughter has been snared in the morass of sometimes conflicting American immigration laws - legally adopted, a permanent resident, but still facing deportation to a country she never knew.

"They tell you you slipped through the cracks and that's your luck," she says.

Kairi Shepherd's troubles started with her mother's death when she was 8 years old. She was passed between older siblings (her maternal grandmother suggested offering her up for adoption again). A co-worker introduced her to meth - for its bursts of energy and appetite-suppression - when she was 17. In 2003, she was charged with forgery. Immigration came calling. Then she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

She has been in jail most of the past year, detained by Homeland Security, shuttled between four county jails from Ogden to St. George, sometimes allowed to take her MS medication, sometimes not.

All of which is to say: Enough already.

"Yes, she made mistakes. And she should be held accountable. But she has been," says her older sister, Kristi Tafoya. "Why aren't adopted children protected?"

Prosecutors use their judgment in cases where mothers and fathers leave their babies to bake to death in the car, with maliciously repetitive drunk drivers, or when con men bilk their LDS ward members out of millions. But not, apparently, in this all-important application of post-9/11 red tape.

Unable to staunch the flow of undocumented immigrants slipping over the Mexican border, government lawyers are going after the ones they already know about, the ones they can: immigrants who came here legally, then broke the law. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regional spokeswoman Lori Haley says the agency works closely with local law enforcement to identify those who should be deported. Kairi, it seems, is on that list.

She is not unique in Utah. Immigration officials also tried to deport 25-year-old Samuel Schultz last year after he was convicted of felony car theft. Schultz's mother adopted him from India when he was 3 years old and she, too, did not complete his citizenship paperwork. He appealed all the way to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which upheld his deportation order.

Congress has attempted to streamline adoptees' citizenship applications. Until 2000, parents simply had to fill out a form before a child turned 21. Erlene Shepherd's daughters believe she filled out the paperwork but never filed it before her death. After 2001, legal international adoptions automatically confer citizenship on children adopted by U.S. citizens. But 26-year-old Kairi's birthday missed the new deadline by a matter of months.

Twice, immigration Judge William Nixon has dismissed the government's Notice to Appear against her - once because everyone involved in the case, including prosecutors, assumed Kairi's legal adoption would grant her citizenship, and a second time because her volunteer attorney Alan Smith argued the government could not refile its Notice to Appear to try to change Nixon's original ruling. Undeterred, local ICE prosecutors have appealed to the agency's Board of Immigration Appeals.

"It's really a garden variety case of how bureaucracy operates," says Smith. "From their standpoint, they're just doing their job. From my standpoint, I would like a little more equitable discretion to be exercised in a situation like this, where you have a young lady who has gotten off on the wrong foot."

Kairi has left a 40-pound box of supplies - clothing, a pair of shoes, pre-paid phone cards - with Immigration, just in case. If she is deported and India accepts her (the country has refused to take in U.S. deportees in the past) she and her sister plan to buy a plane ticket to London. She won't even leave the airport in Delhi.

"She'll die in India," the older sister says. "If [deportation] happens, she's got to be OK."

Meantime, Kairi has been charged with violating her probation for the original forgery charge. She didn't notify her probation officer she was being held all those months in jail by Immigration. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 4.

walsh@sltrib.com