‘I’m an American’: Deported adoptee struggles in Brazil
Niteroi, Brazil – Paul Fernando Schreiner paces around a sparsely furnished room, swatting mosquitoes from his arms and neck as he wonders if today will be any different from all the others.
The heavy, dense air of this city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro feels insufferable, nothing like the dry heat of Phoenix, where the 36-year-old had been living when he was deported by the U.S. last year.
Conversations are rare for Schreiner as he speaks no Portuguese and few people here speak anything but Portuguese. But language is only one issue: The food and even the sports Brazilians follow – Schreiner likes American football more than soccer – don’t feel right. Inside his head, every day is a fight against boredom, loneliness and desperation.
“I am anything but Brazilian,” said Schreiner, who was adopted from Brazil by a U.S. family three decades ago. “I am an American.”
The U.S. government disagrees, underscoring the increasingly hard line the Trump administration is taking with legal residents deemed deportable.
U.S. immigration authorities went to such lengths to remove Schreiner that they may have broken Brazilian law and have made it virtually impossible for him to exercise his supposed Brazilian citizenship.
For adoption groups in the U.S., forcibly removing people like Schreiner violates basic human rights and amounts to triple jeopardy: Adoptees were abandoned as children in their home countries, are abandoned a second time by their adopted country and then are sent to a place where they have no family, don’t speak the language and have few skills to survive.
“He shouldn’t have to suffer a second time,” his mother, Rosanna Schreiner, said through tears from her home outside Seward, Nebraska.
Schreiner was never naturalized a U.S. citizen but lived as an American for 30 years. He was legally adopted at age 5, had a Nebraska birth certificate, a Social Security number and paid taxes.
U.S. adoption groups estimate that between 35,000 and 75,000 adoptees in the United States could be in such a situation today, many incorrectly believing they are already citizens. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000, signed by President Bill Clinton, aimed at streamlining the process by making citizenship automatic for children adopted from overseas. But there was an exception: For children already in America, only those under 18 when the law went into effect qualified. Six weeks too old, the law didn’t apply to Schreiner.
Applying for citizenship based on eligibility as a green-card holder was also out: When he was 21, Schreiner was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with a 14-year-old.
After spending nearly eight years in prison in Nebraska, Schreiner got his life together. He moved to Arizona, started pool-cleaning and carpenter businesses and developed a close relationship with Jason Young, a pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Goodyear, a Phoenix suburb.
“He was working, getting acclimated to life after prison. Then I get a call one day that he was in prison again, this time through ICE,” said Young, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
When agents surrounded his truck at 5 a.m. as he left for work on Oct. 23, 2017, Schreiner wasn’t totally surprised. Soon after his legal troubles began, in 2004 he was notified by ICE that there was a deportation order against him. But a removal order did not always lead to deportation during the administrations of Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.
Schreiner also had the backing of Brazil.
“The official position of the Brazilian Government – stated in the Brazilian Law of the Child and Adolescent – is that adoption is an irrevocable act, which confers to the adopted child the same rights as those living with his or her biological parents,” Alexandre Addor Neto, Brazil’s then-consul general in Chicago, wrote to Homeland Security in 2004 in response to a U.S. request that Brazil issue travel documents for Schreiner’s deportation.
“The Brazilian government does not issue travel documents for the purpose of deportation of a Brazilian national in this situation, unless that person freely manifests his or her clear and unequivocal wish to return to Brazil, which was not the case of Mr. Schreiner,” the letter said.
After Schreiner’s 2017 detention, Brazilian authorities again denied the U.S. government’s request for documents to deport him.
Weeks turned into eight months in an immigration detention facility in Florence, Arizona. According to Schreiner and his father, Roger Schreiner, Brazilian consular officials in Los Angeles, which has jurisdiction over Arizona, told him that he could refuse to get on a plane.
Then, on June 12, 2018, Schreiner was awakened and told he was being deported.
“Brazil is a corrupt government and will let you in,” Schreiner said an ICE agent told him about the fact that he didn’t have a passport.
Schreiner said he was told that if he made a fuss, he would be put in a “burrito bag,” a type of straight jacket used for resisting arrestees.
In a statement, ICE said only that Schreiner had been deported and declined to comment further.
In handcuffs and accompanied by two agents, Schreiner said he was flown on a commercial flight from Phoenix to New York. However, in New York, American Airlines officials didn’t want to let Schreiner on the flight to Rio de Janeiro.
The only documentation ICE agents had for Schreiner was a “certificate of nationality” that the consulate in Los Angeles, caving into U.S. pressure, had issued. It listed a single name, “Fernando,” and the arbitrary birth date Schreiner was given when he was adopted.
“He is a wanted felon in Brazil,” Schreiner said the agents told airline officials, who relented and let him on the flight.
Once in Rio de Janeiro, there were more questions.
For several hours, Schreiner said U.S. agents and Brazilian federal police argued about whether to let him in. After a series of phone calls and heated conversations, Schreiner was taken through the gift shop to the front of the airport. He was uncuffed and the agents left.
The Brazilian federal police did not respond to multiple requests from The Associated Press seeking comment. In a statement, Brazil’s foreign ministry said the consulate in Los Angeles was “instructed to formally confirm, before U.S. authorities, the Brazilian nationality of Mr. Schreiner, who had a final deportation order against him.”
“I don’t understand how somebody who had been living in the U.S. can be abandoned like this,” said Segisfredo Silva Vanderlai, a 68-year-old pastor with whom Schreiner has been living. “He was thrown out like human garbage.”
Memories and regrets
Schreiner doesn’t remember much about his early years. His parents adopted him from an orphanage in Nova Iguaçu, a Rio municipality interspersed with slums controlled by heavily armed drug traffickers and paramilitary groups.
“I remember my older sister reaching into garbage cans too tall for me, and finding bananas and other foods to eat,” Schreiner said. “I remember fear, running and hiding from older kids with guns.”
At one point, Schreiner and his sister ended up in a house. It was there that his sister was taken away by people Schreiner just remembers as “bad men,” and never heard from again. Schreiner said he ended up in an orphanage where he was repeatedly sexually molested, trauma that led to bed-wetting until he was a teenager.
Life on a farm in Nebraska with four other adopted siblings was happy, though Schreiner struggled with identity. Because of that, his parents said they put off his becoming a U.S. citizen until he was older and able to fully participate in the decision.
“It was a big miscalculation on our part,” Roger Schreiner said. “It never occurred to us that any of our children could go to prison.”
Nearly a year since being deported, Schreiner is still in limbo.
He has been unable to get a Brazilian birth certificate, an identification card or a tax ID number needed to work.
Coming into the country through the backdoor with a certificate of citizenship referring to him only as “Fernando” has been one obstacle with civil registry officials. Another is that there is no original record of his birth, a common situation of adoptees and other poor people in Brazil.
Vanderlai and others have been trying to help Schreiner navigate the bureaucracy. His best hope, if he can ever get a Brazilian passport, is to try to immigrate to Canada, where he speaks the language and would be closer to family.
“Deportation is for illegal immigrants,” Schreiner said. “I didn’t request to come to the U.S., and I didn’t cross a border.”