'I'm an American': Deported adoptee struggles in Brazil

NITEROI, Brazil (AP) - 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.

"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 and started pool-cleaning and carpenter businesses.

"He was working, getting acclimated to life after prison," said Jason Young, a pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in a Phoenix suburb, with whom Schreiner developed a close relationship.


Then at 5 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2017, agents surrounded Schreiner's truck as he left for work.

Schreiner wasn't totally surprised. Soon after his legal troubles began, in 2004 he had been notified there was a deportation order against him. But that didn't always lead to removal 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.

In 2017, Brazilian authorities again denied the U.S. government's request for documents to deport him.


Nevertheless, on June 12, 2018, Schreiner was awakened in detention and told he was being deported.

"Brazil is a corrupt government and will let you in," Schreiner said an agent told him about the fact that he didn't have a passport.

In a statement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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, where American Airlines officials didn't want to let him on the flight to Rio de Janeiro.

The only documentation ICE agents had for Schreiner was a "certificate of nationality" issued by the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles that gave only one name, "Fernando," and the arbitrary birth date Schreiner was given upon adoption.

"'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 brought to the front of the airport. He was uncuffed and the agents left.

The federal police did not respond to multiple requests from The Associated Press seeking comment. In a statement, Brazil's foreign ministry said only that the Los Angeles consulate was "instructed to formally confirm, before U.S. authorities, the Brazilian nationality of Mr. Schreiner, who had a final deportation order against him."


Nearly a year since being deported, Schreiner remains 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.

Schreiner says 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."


AP Photographer Nati Harnik contributed to this report from Seward, Nebraska.