A Life Turned Upside Down
Imagine one day waking up to discover you're not who you always thought you were.
In effect, that's what happened to Alan Riley two years ago when he took his mother, Heather Hynes, to the Social Security office just after her 65th birthday to sign up for receiving the benefits of a system she'd paid into for 37 years.
That day, he learned that his mother, who had married an American serviceman and legally immigrated to this country from England back in 1974, was not entitled to receive her benefits because her citizenship process had never been completed.
To complicate matters, upon looking into his own legal status, Riley was stunned to discover that he, too, was a man in legal limbo - a citizen, if you will, of nowhere.
"It was a shock to discover, legally speaking, I wasn't who I'd always assumed I was," says Riley, who grew up on Pope Air Force base in Fayetteville, attended elementary and middle school there and graduated from Seventy-First High School.
"I grew up in America believing I was a citizen, went all the way through school, earned a college degree, registered for the draft and Social Security," he says. "I'd worked from age 14 onward, paid taxes every step of the way, came to Pinehurst and grew a very successful business that now has 24 employees. I thought I knew pretty well who I was and what my life would be like until this happened."
If you frequent Dugan's Pub in Pinehurst, you know Alan Riley. He's the bundle of nervous energy forever flitting around the popular eatery, the slight bespectacled fellow in T-shirt and ball cap who manages and co-owns what is arguably Pinehurst's best-known pub.
Riley came to Dugan's 11 years ago as a bartender and soon wound up managing the place, transforming the pub into one of the village's landmark establishments. Among other things, nine years ago, long before his bureaucratic nightmare began, he helped found the annual St. Patrick's Day parade that's become a village rite of spring and annually raises thousands for children's cancer research.
Under his direction, the restaurant and staff also became a major sponsor of BackPack Pals, the splendid volunteer program that provides basic nutrition to more than 600 Moore County kids. The inaugural golf tournament Riley created for the Moore public schools program raised $7,500 to buy school back packs.
For the past few years, Riley and his crew have also raised funds for everything from public school supplies to the Woof Woof dog park. In a county where charity golf events are just about a weekly occurrence, Alan Riley is a mainstay of support.
Ironically, the same year he found out he wasn't a U.S. citizen and began the lengthy and expensive task of formally trying to acquire this status for himself and his mother, Dugan's was named the North Carolina winner of a national humanitarian award competition sponsored by the National Restaurant and Lodging Association. The restaurant won the prestigious award for a second time last year - and is in the running again this year for national honors.
A Rare Case
Riley's odyssey to claim a U.S. citizenship that he had always assumed was his began with an exhaustive search to document his own life in detail.
"My case turned out to be very rare," he says, "that of a person who's been legally adopted by an American citizen who went through the preliminary process more than 30 years ago of acquiring full citizenship status."
Among other things, he learned about complications that arose when his divorced mother traveled to Virginia in 1977 to marry an American career serviceman named Robert Francis Hynes. The young Alan Riley followed her there, and Hynes filed papers to legally adopt the then 9-year-old, whose own birth father back in England had legally surrendered his parental rights.
Shortly before Hynes was relocated to Pope Air Force base in Fayetteville, the state of Virginia granted the adoption and effectively certified Alan's citizenship. Even so, his new father filed preliminary paperwork seeking full citizenship status for both his wife and adopted son. After 20 years of service with the U.S Air Force, Robert Hynes was honorable discharged in 1984. He died six years later.
"What I've been able to determine," says Riley, "was that the critical disconnect happened about the time I was legally adopted. When my adoption went through, we were granted status as legal permanent residents. But that turned out to only be the first step in the process. We never heard anything more about the matter. Our paperwork just somehow got lost in the process and the government never notified us.
"We moved to Fayetteville, and I grew up assuming I was an American citizen, doing everything any American does - going to school, making a career, paying taxes, building a life - never once thinking it could all be lost because of an oversight or a problem in the system."
At 45, the wiry blue-eyed publican is far from the normal face of the fierce immigration debate raging on TV screens and editorial pages across the nation these days. Perhaps for this reason alone, four lawyers were reluctant to take on Riley's case - either sensing that it wasn't worth their time or simply because it was not an area of the immigration law they were familiar with.
A Chapel Hill lawyer took on his cause and soon convinced the office of Sen. Richard Burr to join the paper chase.
"The funny thing is, I could have simply kept quiet and gone on like I have for more than 35 years," says Riley. "But that would have led to several problems. To begin with, my mother is a military widow who is entitled to her late husband's military pension - but not, as it stands now, his or her own Social Security benefits.
"As a result, I've been taking care of my mother, who is pretty worried and upset about all this. Once we sort out my situation, I plan to get hers sorted out, too. Technically, I suppose, the government could decide at the spur of the moment to deport her - or us both, for that matter. That's the constant anxiety you live under when you are undergoing this sort of thing."
Then there is his own future to think about.
'Waiting Gets to You'
"I've paid into the system for 30 years," Riley says, "and someday I'll want to retire and travel. That's what I always dreamed about. But right now as things stand, I'll never be able to obtain a passport or really go anywhere. If the government decided to do so, they could even order me deported tomorrow. I think that's highly unlikely, especially with the support we've received from so many public officials and even military folks over at Fort Bragg. But these days - you never know."
If that were to happen, Riley wonders what might happen to the pub and his 24 loyal employees.
"These are great people with jobs they really count on, with medical insurance and other benefits that all come from the success of Dugan's," he says. "We're an anchor of the business community here and have all worked so hard to make this place as good as it can be. I hate the thought of somehow letting them down."
Going public with his dilemma was not the easiest of tasks, Riley concedes.
"It was tough to put this out there and a little embarrassing to have to tell friends and customers about my problem," he says. "But the really nice thing that happened was that customers and friends came forward offering to write letters of support to the INS in my behalf. Some even offered to adopt me."
Several prominent business and community leaders bolstered Riley's latest petition seeking "humanitarian reinstatement" of a required I-130 immigration form with enthusiastic letters of support.
Riley's lawyer and others familiar with his case say it's only a matter of time before the vast federal agency at the center of the most contentious public debate in decades - which may have caused this problem in the first place - takes steps to rectify the situation.
In a nation of bureaucrats where it seems to take four months and 10,000 top scientists and engineers and showboating civil servants just to plug a single oil leak on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, however, goodness knows when Alan Riley and his mom will officially be American citizens.
"It's the waiting and constant uncertainty that gets to you," the affable Riley admits. "Just to prepare for that day when it comes, the staff and I have taken the citizenship tests several times. Ironically, I've done better on it than some of my employees have. If nothing else, I guess that shows I'm ready to be a real citizen."
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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