MIDLAND, Texas – They are mother and son, but not in the eyes of U.S. immigration authorities.
Maria Polinske, who is known to friends as Toni, raised her adopted son Michael Vito Polinske from when he was two days old, but now, 33 years later, they are forced to live in separate countries and haven’t seen each other in four years.
Born in Torreon, Mexico, in 1985, Michael was raised in Midland, Texas, and had a fairly typical childhood, until he discovered he was not a U.S. citizen after leaving school and trying to get a job. “That’s when I discovered I didn’t have a social security number,” he said, interviewed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he has lived since being deported in October 2012.
Why he was deported is partly Michael’s fault – he went to jail after pleading guilty to a minor drug possession charge – though he says the drugs weren’t his. The only reason he pleaded guilty, he added, was to get out of jail so he could see his father who was dying of cancer.
But, his mother, now 73, also blames herself for Michael’s fate. After adopting him, with two other newborn Mexican girls, she and her late husband were never able to finalize the adoption. Their Mexican lawyer tried to extort money from them by withholding their adoption papers and Mexican passports for the children. Only years later, the adoptions were recognized by a judge in Texas.
Their story is a tragic lesson in the legal maze of adoption and deportation, even prior to the current era of tougher immigration policies and ' zero tolerance' under President Donald Trump. While the Polinskes still hold out hope of being reunited, they face an expensive and uncertain legal battle, which neither can financially afford. “Michael’s case is difficult because it has a lot of common complications, but all grouped into one. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong for him,” said immigration attorney Elizabeth Ricci, who has studied the case though she does not represent the family.
Maria Polinske still lives in the family home her husband built on the outskirts of Midland, Texas, surrounded by a desolate landscape of mesquite bushes and oil fields dotted with ubiquitous nodding donkeys, or oil pumps, oozing black tar. But her story begins in the tiny rural village of La Laguna, Zacatecas.
She left school aged 13 after learning to read and write and began to plough the family’s small plot of corn and beans while her father worked as a seasonal farm laborer in the cotton fields of Pecos, west Texas. “We were so poor we didn’t even have goats or chicken,” she recalled during a lengthy interview in her home in Midland.
Aged 21, she persuaded her father to let her go to the border town of Ciudad Juarez where she got work as a seamstress, before taking a job across the border as a house cleaner in El Paso. “The whole village was surprised when I left. I was my father’s right hand, and in those days children didn’t go to work in the United States,” she said. But she was happy making enough money to send $30 a month to her parents.
After six years in El Paso she was offered a job with a wealthy family in Minneapolis, looking after three children. She was afraid to go so far away and remembers her dread at El Paso airport when she encountered heavy security. It turned out that her flight coincided with the arrival of President Richard Nixon who was arriving for a re-election campaign event.
Her employers treated her well and she grew close to the children.
“She was my savior,” said Alicia House, now 57, who fondly recalled the years she spent in the care of Toni, her nanny. “Growing up she was basically my whole life. My own mother wasn’t very caring. Toni is very maternal and she was my mother from the age of four until I went to college,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Kentucky.
“I remember how she brushed and blow dried my hair. She braided it too. I just loved that. She even taught me how to make tortillas,” she added. House's father, Clifford Whitehill, was vice president and chief attorney at General Mills, the U.S. multinational manufacturer and marketer of consumer foods, headquartered in Golden Valley, a suburb of Minneapolis. The son of a Mexican mother, his wife was also a native of Venezuela, and Toni fit right in.
Toni left the family’s employ after meeting her husband, John Polinske, at a dance. They moved to Midland following the shale oil boom in west Texas’ Permian Basin, one of the largest oil and gas deposits in the country. They made a modest living fixing-up and painting homes for a living. They also raised peacocks and geese as well as Koi carp fish in a pond next to the house that‘s now empty.
Toni remembers giving her husband an important condition. "Two children, that's what I want,” she told him. “I'm not interested in riches, happiness, yes," she added.
He was 17 years older than her, had three children from a previous marriage and had undergone a vasectomy. “So, we said, let’s adopt,” said Toni.
They traveled to Mexico to visit orphanages but as they were both over 40 they kept getting rejected. So, they looked for another options, going through a church in Torreon, Coahuila. Although their idea originally was to have two children, they ended up adopting three, Michelle, Amanda and Michael, all born within a few weeks of each other to different mothers.
Toni recalled how Michael was a restless baby, in need of attention. “My mother would tell me: "Hold him close to your face, tell him your mother is here, your mother is here … that’s what I remember the most, though now it's so long ago.”
After six months of paperwork and , and $8,000 in fees, one day their lawyer advised Toni everything was complete. All that remained was obtaining passports for the children, he told her. “He said, ‘Well ma’am, if you want to go, you can leave and I’ll call you when everything is ready,’ Toni recalled.
In those days, crossing the border from Mexico was a piece of cake and border agents barely checked documents. “So, we came home,” said Toni, who brought the two girls first and then went back for Michael. “My husband was waiting at the bus station with car seats,” she said.
But the adoption papers and passports never arrived. The lawyer gave a bunch of excuses until one day Toni confronted him and got a surprising answer. “He said he needed to start over again. He needed to take the children back, but he said this time it would cost another $10,000,” she said.
As she didn’t have money, she enrolled the children without fuss in school in Midland, Texas. Life proceeded normally, although the parents were concerned that the legal situation of their children remained unresolved. When the children were 10 the Polinskes sought to claim income tax credit for their children, but were rejected by the Treasury Department as they lacked a social security number, according to officials letters the family shared with Univision.
Growing up in
Michael graduated from Travis Elementary, then Goddard Junior High before entering Midland High. He made the football team. “I was a defensive end, left tackle, tight end. I practically never left the field. You name it. I played every position, deep snapper even,” said Michael, who is now 33. A school yearbook shows him, chubby cheeked smiling with Ms Johnson’s 6 thgraders.
He had a good attendance record at school, according to his academic records and certificates kept by his mother. Michael dropped out at 16 and started working. But when he asked for his social security, he found out he didn’t have one.
He had always known that he was adopted as his parents told him and his sisters at an early age. But no-one ever mentioned that they weren't American. At first he was upset with his parents. How could they have been so neglectful.
With the help of the Whitehill’s, Toni’s former employers with whom she remained close, they hired a lawyer and went to court. The Whitehills consulted several lawyers and paid thousands of dollars in fees. A court appointed social study of the family concluded: “She (Toni) and John are both trustworthy, hard working, industrious people … John and Toni Polinske have provided a loving, stable, home for Michelle, Michael and Amanda for the past 17 years and continue to provide for them.”
In photos: the struggle of a mother and her son, from adoption to deportation
2003: Texas adoption
Finally, in April 2003, when the children were 17, a Texas judge, Jim Bobo, issued an order granting their adoption. The judge ruled that the Polinkes “have had actual care, possession, and control” of the children and that “the adoption is in the best interests of the children.” His order went on to state that “the parent-child relationship is created between the children and the [Polinskes] for all purposes.”
Michael recalls the day. The judge said: "Do you want to be Polinskes?"
"Yes," all three answered in unison. "Do you want to remain living with them?" the judge asked. Again, they answered “Yes.”
That was the end of it, or so the family thought. In July their Texas birth certificates arrived, recognizing John and Maria Polinske as their legal parents.
Life went on. Michael was already a father and married his girlfriend. He had no trouble getting a drivers’ license and he got a good paying job in real estate that paid cash with an employee who never asked for legal work papers. He rented a nice townhouse and had two cars. He even applied for a tax ID number with the IRS.
In September 2003 John Polinske filed naturalization papers for his son. The document noted that he could expect a reply within about three years. But, despite the adoption order, the children never received their social security cards or citizenship. “The lawyer told me the birth certificates would be sent in the mail and when they arrive we had to Social Security and request numbers for all three of the kids," said Toni. “We were so happy, and then when we went, they said ‘no.’”
The family went back and forth with the Social Security Administration. “They kept asking for more forms, and it was $400 each time,” said Toni.
Years passed, Michael had three more children. But his immigration status, and that of his sisters remained unchanged.
It remains unclear why they were never naturalized at the time. Univision filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into his case, but only a two-page summary of his deportation proceedings. Citizenship "isn’t automatically granted upon approval of an adoption, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told Univision.
Under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 children adopted abroad automatically acquire U.S. citizenship if at least one of the child's parents is a U.S. citizen, the child is under 18 and was admitted into the United States as an immigrant for lawful permanent residence, and the adoption is final, according to the website of the USCIS. Michael's case seems to have slipped through the cracks due to his illegal entry to the country in 1985.
“In recent years, many adoptees have found that although they were legally adopted and have been U.S. residents for most of their lives, they do not hold U.S. citizenship,” the website states. “Many discovered this as young adults when applying for jobs, registering to vote, applying for a U.S. passport, or, unfortunately, when getting into trouble with the law and facing deportation to a country they no longer call home,” it added.
A problem with ICE
Sure enough, in 2007, when Michael was 21, he was stopped by the police driving his car with a friend. The police found two and a half grams of cocaine in the vehicle’s glove compartment.
As it was his car the policeman asked who was going to take responsibility for the cocaine. “He told me, ‘You can accept responsibility, or I’ll arrest you both,’” Michael told Univision.
“Since I’m not the kind of person to burn my friend, I said ‘Ok, let's go, just me. Let him go,’" he added, describing how he says he took the fall for his friend.
The day after his arrest, his wife paid the deposit. But two days passed and he was not released. “They told me I had a problem with ICE,” he said. "’What’s ICE?’ I told them.”
Michael says it was the first time he’d heard of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with detaining and removing undocumented migrants. Michael said he tried to explain his adoption to the ICE agents, who asked him if he was Mexican.
When he appeared in court a judge declined to recognize his adoption as a claim to citizenship.
At the time Michael’s father was battling prostate cancer. Michael said he was persuaded to plead guilty to the drug possession charge because his lawyer told him his odds of winning in court were not good and accepting a plea bargain would get him out of jail faster, allowing him to spend more time with his father.
Shortly after his father died in November 2008 a letter arrived advising Michael that if he did not leave the country voluntarily he would be arrested and deported.
"Imagine our frustrations"
Desperate, Toni wrote to a local member of Congress in 2010. “We tried and tried many times to get the paperwork processed to no avail through the years. We’ve spent thousands of dollars throughout the last 25 years and have gotten nowhere,” Toni wrote. “You can imagine our frustrations. We’ve adopted these three beautiful; children, raised them into adults, and now we’re facing the possibility of them being sent to Mexico,” noting that Michael did not speak Spanish and was “scared about this prospect.”
Michael told his mother he was leaving. But instead of heading to Mexico, he got in his truck and drove to Minnesota. By evading voluntary deportation, Michael became a fugitive until another traffic stop led to his arrest in 2011 and police checked his ID.
He recalled arriving at the border for his deportation. “They told us, ‘you have about two hours before the sun goes down,’” he said. “Then they take the shackles off, give you a bag with a sandwich and chips, and a juice,” he added.
Despite his mother’s advice to be patient while she tried to find a legal solution to bring him home, Michael took matters into his own hands again and decided to return illegally. Without much trouble he was able to purchase a U.S. passport under a fake name, Pablo Salazar. But he was immediately arrested again, this time, by border agents. He spent another year in prison hoping to be able to return to his wife and children.
But it wasn’t to be. His wife demanded a divorce and cut him off from contact with the children.
He was deported for his second time Oct 15, 2012, this time with a 20-year ban on re-entry.
Orphaned in Puerto Vallarta
Michael now lives in a small, but modern apartment on a sandy street in Puerto Vallarta, a tourist resort on Mexico’s west coast. Mexican authorities consider him an orphan and issued him a new birth certificate – under his birth name: Michael Vito Martinez Caldera.
Thanks to his English language fluency he found work in real estate and call centers, but complains about the low pay and lack of benefits. He now works in a Taiwanese restaurant owned by a friend. A Donald Trump supporter, he says the Central American migrant crisis has only hurt his prospects of returning legally to the United States. “They have only made the immigration problem worse for people like me,” he said. "I don’t think I’m ever going home," he added.
Toni now lives alone with a dog and two cats for company. Neighbors look in on her. “We all miss Michael. I wish he was around. His mother needs him,” said Ray Randall, 74, a family friend. “Michael is 24-carot gold. He always showed so much respect for me. He treated me better than my own son.”
A Messianic Jew, Toni is a strong supporter of Israel and voted for Trump for that reason, though she regrets that now. “He’s become a bit of a dictator,” she said.
One of Michael’s teenage sons, Joshua, was living with her until he was arrested for disorderly conduct. Released on parole, he was re-arrested after missing several appointments with his parole officer. Michael's youngest son recently called Toni from the cemetery where her husband is buried. Sounding suicidal, he was treated for cuts to his arms.
Michaels’s oldest boy, also named Michael, is planning to visit his father in Mexico soon.
Meanwhile, Toni scrapes by doing the occasional painting jobs. She also receives a modest monthly stipend from the Whitehill family. But her health is failing and the bitter cold this past winter paid a heavy toll. “I don’t know how, much longer I can go on like this without my son,” she said breaking down in tears during a recent phone call.
One of Michael's sisters, Michelle, was able to become a U.S. citizen but only after being rescued from an abusive marriage and being granted a green card for battered spouses. She declined to speak to Univision and is not in contact with Michael. His other sister, Amanda, is the undocumented mother of two U.S.-born children and also declined to be interviewed.
Immigration experts say Michael’s case is not a lost cause, though it is legally complicated and could take months, or years, to undo everything that has happened. “I think there's a fix for Michael,” said Ricci, though she believes he needs a family law attorney to get his adoption recognized retroactively as well as a criminal defense attorney in order to vacate his conviction.
“I have spoken to Michael. I've reviewed the documents. I understand what transpired and there were several missed opportunities for a fix along the way. And that's unfortunately why he's living in Mexico right now,” she said. Michael’s adoption in Mexico “was never completed legally. It was not finalized,” she said. His adoptive parents failed to understand that and innocently they crossed the border, she explained.
" Had the customs officer back then asked for proof of the children’s citizenship none of this would have happened,” she added.
“Immigration law requires that the adoption be completed by 14. Along the road, the adoptive father dies and he gets charged with a crime. He enters a guilty plea. Is not told that it will result in a deportation. Neither his criminal defense attorney, the public defender, nor the judge told him that. He took that plea and he was necessarily ordered deported and here he is,” she said.
His situation was only worsened by the fact that he re-entered the country after an order of deportation which is punishable by a 20-year ban on re-entry.
Toni scrapes by doing the occasional painting jobs, but her health is failing and the bitter cold this past winter paid a heavy toll. “I don’t know how, much longer I can go on like this without my son,” she said breaking down in tears during a recent phone call.
Toni receives a monthly stipend from the Whitehill family with whom she remains in touch. She lives with a dog and two cats and one of Michael's sons, Josiah. Neighbors look in on her. “We all miss Michael. I wish he was around. His mother needs him,” said Ray Randall, 74, a family friend. “Michael is 24-carot gold. He always showed so much respect for me. He treated me better than my own son.”
Voted for Trump
A Messianic Jew, Toni strongly backs Trump’s support of Israel, and voted for him in 2016, though she regrets that now. “He’s become a bit of a dictator,” she said.
Michael's youngest son recently called Toni from the cemetery where her husband is buried. Sounding suicidal, he was treated for cuts to his arms.
Michaels’s oldest boy, also named Michael, is planning to visit his father in Mexico soon.
Michael expresses his frustration at being unable to offer him the parental support he needs. “I know I haven’t been the best father but I feel like the victim of a conspiracy against me,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever going home.”