Signing his adoption papers, the 15-year-old Mexican boy wasn’t sure about the elegance of his handwriting, but he was certain about the name on the form: Cruz Guillermo Zayas Holiman.
“Congratulations,” the Stanislaus County Superior Court judge said to his parents, Hanford residents Carly and Matt Holiman. “He’s your son.”
Getting to that courtroom earlier this month wasn’t easy.
For Cruz, the hearing was a milestone in his journey to becoming part of the Holiman family. It also was the first step on a years-long path that will move him from undocumented immigrant to legal resident and then citizen.
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An attorney familiar with the Holiman case estimates there are up to 3,000 undocumented children in the United States eligible for citizenship through their adoptive parents. But resources can be hard to find and navigating the immigration system often is daunting.
At first glance, the Holimans might hardly seem like the candidates to wade into such an adoption. They describe themselves as conservative Republicans brought up in the Mormon Church. Carly was 18 when she married Matt. After high school, she graduated with her associate of arts degree from Palomar Community College in San Marcos while he joined the Marines and served two tours through several countries in the Middle East and Asia.
At 26, Carly is a young stay-at-home mother of four adopted children. Matt, also 26, now works as a truck driver, often going weeks without seeing his wife and children to make ends meet. Their three-bedroom home in Hanford is modest, its white exterior paint chipping.
Carly dreamed of having a big family. She and Matt started foster parenting two years after getting married. Siblings Nathan, 6, and Kay, 3, were the first to stay permanently. Their 9-year-old brother, Brandon, lives with his grandmother and dad but stays with the Holimans on weekends and holidays. The youngest sibling, 1-year-old Seth, was born just after Cruz joined the family.
“I always knew I wanted to be a foster parent,” she said. “When I was little, even in kindergarten when they asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I was always like, ‘A mom.’”
‘He’s my son’
Cruz, his mother and his five sisters illegally crossed the border at Mexicali in 2003, fleeing Mexico’s third-poorest state for less damning poverty in the U.S. Cruz, the youngest, was 2. Two older brothers stayed in Mexico.
3,000One attorney’s estimate of how many undocumented children in the United States are eligible for citizenship through their adoptive parents.
Lucia Salazar Ceron, 53, never went to school in her home state of Puebla. Her wages as a farmworker didn’t stretch far enough to raise five children in the U.S.
Cruz met the Holimans through the Mormon church in Coalinga. A woman in the church who unofficially fostered two of his sisters asked Pete Bonilla, Carly’s father, whether he would be willing to look after Cruz for a while. The church also helped Salazar Ceron pay rent and buy food.
“I worked a lot and because I also had my daughters to care for, I couldn’t make rent,” Salazar Ceron said in Spanish. “They helped me with the boy. Coming here with six kids and no papers, I’m still trying to make it.”
Bonilla and his wife cared for Cruz for eight months before returning the then-8-year-old to Salazar Ceron, who had grown worried he would never come back. But it was the most stability and security the boy had ever known. He has moved nine times around Huron since age 7, as far back as he can remember.
By the time Cruz was 13, some of his friends were smoking marijuana, getting in trouble at school and playing pranks. He mostly joined in on those that were harmless, like the doorbell game ding-dong-ditch, but once broke a window and other times trespassed on private property. He also got in fights at school.
Cruz knew his friends were bad influences that could get worse. Salazar Ceron feared for his future.
He held on to the memories of living with Bonilla and his wife. He asked them to attend his eighth-grade graduation, hoping they would invite him back. Instead, Bonilla approached his daughter and son-in-law.
“He told me more than five times, ‘Mommy, I want to have a better future there,’” Salazar Ceron said. “He convinced me. It is very difficult for a mother to give up her child. But I told him, ‘I’ll let you go. I won’t have anything to worry about.’”
Cruz quickly adjusted to life with the Holimans. He plays football, basketball and runs track at Hanford High School. He is a Boy Scout. He struggles with English, but his grades have gone from mostly Cs and Ds to all As and Bs.
Carly and Matt are mom and dad. He went from being the youngest sibling to the oldest, diffusing fights between the others and helping care for baby Seth.
“He instantly latched onto this whole family,” Carly said.
“He’s my son,” Matt said.
The Holimans spent more than a year looking for an attorney knowledgeable in immigration and private adoption law. Cruz was five months from his 16th birthday by the time they found Irene Steffas, a lawyer in Georgia.
Several factors complicated Cruz’s adoption, the most critical being his legal status and the timing. Non-U.S. citizens must be adopted by age 16 to qualify for legal residency and must apply before age 21. Adoptions typically take longer than a year to finalize.
“Under the current system, if you don’t do something proactive, you’re going to get the child deported,” Steffas said. She directed attorneys at Family Connections Christian Adoptions in California, who were able to fast-track the Holimans’ hearing to finalize Cruz’s adoption because of the agency’s longstanding relationship with judges at the Stanislaus County court.
Once adopted, undocumented children do not automatically become citizens. Cruz can apply for legal residency in two years. Five years after that, he can apply to become a citizen.
The Holimans had plenty of experience adopting. Their three other children, who were adopted through the foster care system, qualify for Medi-Cal health insurance and those younger than 5 qualify for food assistance. The parents also receive compensation from the state until their children turn 18.
Cruz is not eligible for any of those government benefits because his adoption is private and he is an unauthorized immigrant. The Holimans expect to spend approximately $28,000 on legal fees associated with Cruz’s adoption, including the process to become a citizen. Before meeting Cruz, they were saving up to buy a minivan.
Carly said Cruz put a face on the immigration debate. “It’s so different when real humans are involved,” she said. “For a lot of kids, what choice did they have?”
Matt didn’t expect to adopt four kids, especially not one who lacked legal status. But he believed the U.S. government makes it difficult for immigrants from Mexico to come here legally. And he acknowledged that since becoming Cruz’s father, his opinion about immigration has changed a bit.
“If I can make a productive member of society out of an illegal who was maybe going to get into gangs, what more could you want?” he said. “It’s not like we’re Angelina Jolie trying to adopt kids from other countries. This just happened.”
Matt adds: “My parents raised me to be conservative, but just because you’re conservative doesn’t mean you need to be inhumane.”
In 2008, the U.S. enacted the Hague Adoption Convention, an international agreement that establishes safeguards for inter-country adoptions. For such adoptions, the U.S. presumes that where the child lives is the same as where they have citizenship. That isn’t true for children like Cruz, who is a citizen of Mexico but lives in the U.S.
Cruz’s adoption by the Holimans alone doesn’t pave his path to citizenship. Before Cruz can apply for legal residency, the family needs a letter from the Mexican government agreeing that his established country of residence is the U.S.
Earlier this month, Cruz’s birth father, who lives in Puebla, Mexico, relinquished his parental rights to the boy he hasn’t seen since age 2. But his father’s consent of the adoption isn’t enough. The Holimans are still waiting for Mexican authorities to approve the residence letter.
Steffas said she knows of 10 or so other attorneys around the country who can help adopted immigrant children like Cruz establish legal status. She said many attorneys specializing in either immigration or adoption law don’t know about the immigration requirements for such children.
“There are so many people who believe that if immigrants would just file the appropriate documents, they could become legal,” she said. “As you’ve seen in this case, it takes a heck of a lot more than filing some paperwork with the government. And it doesn’t get any easier; it gets harder and more complex.”
Part of the family
Cruz first realized what it meant to be undocumented when he looked into taking a driver’s education course and couldn’t get his learner’s permit. (This was before Assembly Bill 60 took effect in January, which provides driver’s licenses for undocumented California residents.) It further sunk in when he tried to work at his school cafeteria but couldn’t apply without a Social Security number.
After moving in with the Holimans in 2013, Cruz started dreaming of a brighter future. He wants to be an aerospace engineer.
“I guess you could say I have one big family,” he said. “I was trying to be an example for my niece. Now my goal is to be the first in my real family to graduate college.”
In Mormon faith, biological children are born into the family covenant. Adopted children, however, must be “sealed” with their parents, joined together for eternity through a ceremony performed by a church official.
The Holimans conducted a sealing ceremony for each of their adopted children. As an unofficial family member, Cruz wasn’t allowed to join the ceremony when baby Seth was sealed in August. The family plans to have Cruz’s sealing at the end of this month.
Cruz’s adoption is open. His biological mother visits every couple months. Her son has started to forget how to speak Spanish, stuck between two languages in a limbo familiar to many English learners. Salazar Ceron said that when she talks to him, she has to say things very slowly. When that fails, one of his sisters translates. But the breach in communication isn’t cause for worry.
“I thank God,” she said. “I tell him he’ll be much better than me.”
Back in the Modesto courtroom on May 4, Cruz was followed by an entourage of family members in purple clothes — his favorite color. Cruz and his three brothers wore matching outfits: black shirts and slacks with purple checkered ties.
After reading his parents their legal responsibilities, Judge Loretta Murphy Begen turned to their son.
“Cruz, do you agree that your mom and dad can adopt you?”
“Yes,” he said.
Their signatures made it official. Cruz dropped the pen, turned to his mom and grinned.
How to help
Anyone wishing to help the Holimans cover their adoption costs can donate through their GoFundMe campaign.