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Citizenship test

Citizenship | His grandparents are American missionaries and his mother is their U.S.-born daughter, but the U.S. embassy in Guatemala insists that little David Alexander Molina isn't an American

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

HILLSBORO, Ill.-An American missionary couple's daughter and her baby remain in Guatemala after the family was astonished 15 months ago to be told by U.S. embassy employees that her U.S. citizenship does not transfer to her baby. An immigration expert questions that interpretation of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, but the American-born mother has not yet been able to return to the United States with her baby.

Kiara was 13 in 2004 when her parents John and Donna Reynolds took her to the mountains of Guatemala, where they minister through Cross Commission. In doing so, they are now told, they unknowingly lost their future grandson's U.S. citizenship, greatly complicating their American-born daughter's choices and efforts to return to the United States, even to visit. "It's very hard when you're an American citizen and you don't have those rights," said Kiara, now 20 and married to Guatemalan medical student Peter Molina. Their child, David Alexander, is 16 months old.

The family says embassy employees insist the law requires Kiara to have lived in the United States at least two years since she turned 14 for her son to be an American citizen. Had the family known in time, they could have easily satisfied the requirement since they routinely come home to visit family and the churches that support their ministry. "How are you supposed to know that?" said Donna Reynolds, Kiara's mother. "If we'd have ever realized, she'd have come to the U.S. to deliver her baby."

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The Reynolds family is back in the United States for a two-and-a-half-month visit to relatives and supporting churches. Kiara would be with them if she could emerge from her bureaucratic entanglement. Since Kiara was in school when they made their return trips, she largely stayed in Guatemala for those years. She returned to the United States three times from 2005 to 2008, with one stay lasting more than three months, but nowhere close to the two-year mandate.

So far, all their efforts end at a window at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. They have been proceeding with two tracks: still hoping to get the U.S. citizenship for the baby that they think should be his right, and trying to get clearance so the baby can be brought into the country for a visit. "My parents, this is their first [great] grandbaby and they've never met him," Donna said.

Each time they go to the embassy, they drive 130 miles, which is close to a five-hour journey due to the roads, and are directed to the same window-not the line for American citizens, but the longer line for Guatemalans, since the baby is not legally American. There, they wait up to two or three hours holding the 1-year-old baby, to talk to Guatemalan employees of the U.S. embassy, they say, and each time they discover another document requirement. Efforts to speak with American officials in Guatemala have been refused. They are always directed back to the same window. Kiara is pointedly frustrated that she hasn't found someone there who will help her as an American citizen find a way through her problem: "That's what the American embassy is for."

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, agrees: "She's a citizen. She should be handled by a U.S. citizen's officer or team at that embassy." The law itself is complicated and has changed several times. However, this child appears to qualify for citizenship under a summary of the law posted by the U.S. State Department, which states: "If the child's American citizen parent cannot meet the physical presence requirement, it is enough if one of the child's American citizen grandparents can meet it" (travel.state.gov/visa/immigrants/types/types_1312.html#2). The real concern in this case is that the U.S. embassy does not seem to have explained the best option and helped the family get through the application process. "I can understand why they're frustrated," Vaughan said.

For now, the Reynoldses have been "spinning their wheels," with the latest delay a demand by embassy officers for a new copy of the couple's marriage certificate from Guatemala. That has meant a delay of several months so far, because the Guatemalan lawyer they initially used has since had trouble with his license to practice law. The family contends a new marriage certificate from Guatemalan authorities should be irrelevant. The baby has an American mother and that should be enough, they say. Guatemala "makes it very difficult to get paperwork done," Kiara said.

John and Donna Reynolds took their problem to the staff of Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., which has suggested that the baby might be able to acquire a tourist visa. If all had gone according to plan, Kiara's husband would be contemplating applying for a student visa to the United States for a few years, but otherwise the couple expected to live in Guatemala. However, Kiara made those plans anticipating her baby would be a U.S. citizen and that she and the baby could go back and forth freely. "I haven't seen my grandma now in six years," Kiara said. "It's very hard."

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