Imagine growing up in the United States, with American parents, only to find out decades later that you're not an American citizen. The News4 I-Team found it's happened to tens of thousands of people.
"It's frustrating and it's devastating," said Joy Kim-Alessi who, at age 25, found out she wasn't an American citizen when she applied for a passport.
Her American parents, who brought her to the U.S. as a 7-month-old baby, failed to fill out the right form, even though her adoption was legal.
"It's hard to wrap your head around that," she said. "To live your entire life believing just concrete truths about who you are ... all of that means I don't have an identity."
'Soul Shaking' for Adoptee to Learn He's Not a US Citizen
Kim-Alessi is in the U.S. legally, with a green card, but she's been fighting for 27 years for her citizenship. Now she's also fighting on behalf of others, like a Virginia man who asked the I-Team only to identify him as "Tom."
Tom said he has felt American for almost as long as he can remember, even though his life began almost 8,000 miles away in the Philippines.
"I just felt [like] myself. There wasn't American, Philippine or any other culture. I just was a kid," said Tom.
Tom was adopted when he was just 1 year old by his American father, who worked for the U.S. Air Force, and his Filipino wife. They all moved to the U.S. when Tom was 7, and he grew up doing all of the things any American kid would.
"It didn't faze me a bit. It was just an adventure, basically, is what all I can remember," said Tom.
Tom's family moved to Virginia. He eventually got a job, married an American wife and had three American children. But at age 45, a security background check at work led to an unbelievable discovery: His legal adoption decades earlier had not made Tom a legal U.S. citizen.
Adoptee Says Learning She Isn't a US Citizen Was Like the Trauma of a Car Crash
"We had to be quiet about it," recalls Tom. "It's the worst feeling to have some kind of secret."
Tom is now 61. This is the first time he and his wife, whom we're calling Heather, are speaking publicly about their ordeal.
"I think it's like one page for that they needed to complete before his 18th birthday," said Heather. "And because they didn't know, or did not do that, we have to cope with the consequences."
Kim-Alessi met the Virginia couple through her work as a program director with the Adoptee Rights Campaign, where she tries to help educate families about the process.
She said the specifics of each case vary widely because, decades ago, adopting families weren't always properly told what to file.
In many cases, the American parents thought they did everything right.
"They brought them in on immigrant-based visas, not non-immigrant-based visas. They may or may not have known they need to file differently," said Kim-Alessi.
In a report to Congress, the advocacy group estimates the number of adults stuck in this same situation ranges from 25,000 to 49,000. They predict the number could reach 64,000 in the next 15 years.
In some cases, an adoptee who has reached adulthood and lived in the U.S. for decades might not even know they fall into this category if they've never tried to travel internationally or had a need for a secure background check.
"It is a complex process. It's something that people need to learn about," said Suzanne Lawrence, a special adviser for children’s issues within the U.S. State Department.
"We are absolutely aware of it, as is United States Citizenship and Immigration Services," said Lawrence. "And we try to work together to figure out how to get that information out to people in an understandable way, so they can take the necessary steps to get themselves in the right direction."
In 2000, Congress passed a law to close the gap and give automatic citizenship to adoptees from other countries, but it only protected children under 18.
Those born before 1983, like Tom and Joy Kim-Alessi, were left out.
"It just seems like such a simple fix, and a fair one, because if you're adopted, you are that family's child," said Tom's wife Heather. "Because you turned into an adult, you should not have to suffer consequences that were out of your control."
The Adoptee Citizenship Act, introduced in 2015 and 2018, would have fixed the problem and granted adult adoptees automatic citizenship as well, but the bills never made it out of committee.
"We didn't bring ourselves here. We didn't broker our own adoptions. We are here legally," said Kim-Alessi. "This year we're anxious to see a bipartisan, clean bill, hopefully, that covers what it should have in 2000."
A spokesperson for Congressman Adam Smith, D-Wash., who introduced the House version of the legislation in 2015 and 2018, says he plans to introduce it again this session.
The I-Team also contacted staffers for Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who introduced last year's Senate version of the bill, and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who cosponsored it.
"International adoptees who were adopted by American parents and raised as Americans should have the same rights of citizenship as biological children," Hirono said in a statement. "I’m proud to work with Senator Blunt to close the loophole in the Child Citizenship Act and right this wrong."
When asked about Tom's plight, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., sent a statement saying, "This is a problem for thousands of adults living in the U.S. who, in some cases, had no idea they may not be U.S. citizens. The fair and reasonable approach here would be to close this loophole, and I am hopeful that we can work on a bipartisan basis in Congress to do that."
In the meantime, Tom worries about his family and his future. He has a green card but he's afraid to even apply for citizenship. An attorney warned him he could be deported because he voted for years, which is a federal crime.
"I was just upset, confused and blanked it out because I didn't want to have any trouble," said Tom, who now fears his family will be torn apart.
"It's just been this undercurrent of insecurity," his wife added.
But yet, they remain confident in his American dream.
"My daughter and I have planned it," she said. "We want to have a party — it seems silly — with the red, white and blue tablecloths, and we want our American to be an American."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.