July 22, 2008
© Photographer: Kmitu | Agency: Dreamstime.com
U.S. adoptee a stranger in his birthplace
By Leslie Berestein
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
July 20, 2008
A man adopted by a U.S. couple when he was 6 months old has been
El Salvador after spending five years in immigration detention in Otay
while he appealed his case.
Jess Mustanich, 29, arrived in El Salvador on July 10 after losing his
appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last spring, a
that stemmed from a burglary conviction 11 years ago. Described by his
father as "a middle-class white kid" raised in an Anglo household,
learned a handful of Spanish words from Latino detainees while in
immigration detention, but is otherwise starting over as a stranger in
Speaking by phone Friday from a San Salvador hotel, he described going
through customs at the airport.
"They brought out some guy, and he asked, 'Why don't you speak
Mustanich said. "I told him it was because I was adopted, and he said,
why are you here?' "
Mustanich's case is rare. But foreign adoptees occasionally land in
deportation proceedings, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement, usually after getting into trouble with the law and
that their parents, who brought them into the United States legally,
complete the process of making them citizens.
Not long ago, ICE deported another foreign adoptee held in San Diego, a
adopted in 1959 from Japan when he was 1. While a 2000 law made
virtually automatic for most adopted children brought into the United
States, it doesn't apply retroactively.
Mustanich landed in prison as a teenager after he and some friends
burglarized his father's house. His father, hoping to scare him
called the police. Jess Mustanich's resulting conviction for
burglary set in motion a series of events that his father did not
"I was trying to do the right thing for my kid," said Bill Mustanich,
San Jose. "Every time I think about this, I think about throwing up.
I going to do about him now?"
Bill Mustanich, who recently retired from his job as a school adviser
troubled teens, said he tried on several occasions to naturalize his
and his wife adopted their son under Salvadoran law through an agency
1979; the couple divorced before they followed through on naturalizing
After the dust settled, Bill Mustanich hired a family law attorney to
complete the process; his son was about 5. The attorney ran into
including changes in the law and the fact that the adoption agency was
longer in business.
In 1988, with his son in tow, Bill Mustanich took a completed
application to an Immigration and Naturalization Service field office
Jose, he said, but they were turned away and given a phone number to
Bill Mustanich said he called several times and left messages, but
received a reply.
Meanwhile, Jess Mustanich was growing up and he began to act out,
experimenting with alcohol and drugs and getting into trouble. Shortly
his 18th birthday, Jess Mustanich and several friends who had been
from their parents burglarized his father's home. The police were
and, Jess Mustanich was convicted of residential burglary in 1997.
Neither father nor son knew at the time that changes to immigration law
enacted the previous year had eliminated most legal relief for legal
residents convicted of a crime.
According to immigration officials, Jess Mustanich matched the
a deportable alien, regardless of his adoption background. In 2003,
his release from prison, he was placed in the custody of Immigration
Customs Enforcement to await deportation.
"He had a criminal conviction that made him removable, and our job is
comply with what the judge orders," said Lauren Mack, an agency
in San Diego.
At a hotel now for more than a week, Jess Mustanich isn't sure what to
next. His father can provide financial support, and members of a local
branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, of which he is a member,
helped get him oriented.
Bill Mustanich, who referred to ICE as "an agency out of control,"
travel to El Salvador, though he feels helpless.
"It's a country in turmoil," he said. "I am terrified about his ability
move around. The whole thing is just appalling."
Jess Mustanich said he would like to return home one day, but realizes
unlikely. He recently bought a copy of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to
Intermediate Spanish" at a bookstore.
"It's going to take some time," he said. "Until then, I'm going to have
rely on hand signals."