Augustan learns citizenship is in doubt

Meet Ethel Davis: Wife. Grandmother. Churchgoer. Plant worker. Homeowner. Taxpayer.

But it turns out she's lacking a label she'd taken for granted: American. After a lifetime of believing she was a citizen, a bureaucratic runaround has Mrs. Davis, 64, worried she's an illegal immigrant.

She's legal, according to immigration law experts, just not entirely documented.

The trouble started when Mrs. Davis went to the Social Security office on Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway last year to apply for retirement benefits. She said a woman there told her she's not eligible because they have no record of her.

In fact, the woman said, she's not even a citizen.

"It floored me," Mrs. Davis said.

She was born in Sparta, Greece, but because her mother, Sofia Nicolopoulos, was born in Richmond, Va., she thought that made her an American, too, she said.

Mrs. Nicolopoulos left the U.S. with her father around age 6, after her mother died. For her to have transmitted citizenship to her children, she would have to have lived in America for at least five years after turning 16, according to Charles Kuck, the national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and an adjunct University of Georgia School of Law professor.

In 1948, Mrs. Nicolopoulos returned to the U.S. with her husband and four children, including Mrs. Davis, then 5. Mrs. Davis attended Augusta public schools, has a driver's license, has a Social Security card that she changed twice after two marriages, has been earning income since 1972 and votes regularly. She works as a packer at Covidien, a medical supply company on Marvin Griffin Road.

All along, it seems, she's been living here on a 59-year-old expired green card.

She said the Social Security representative told her there was no record of her account and that the number on her green card doesn't have enough digits to be valid. Making matters worse, the card -- a warped, laminated relic with a black-and-white picture of Mrs. Davis as a child -- has the wrong name on it, "Athanassia Stavros." That's her Greek first name followed by her father's first name.

"It's like I don't exist," Mrs. Davis said. "She said you need to apply for a Social Security card. I said, 'I've got my card right here! What more can I do?' "

The representative Mrs. Davis said she spoke with did not return a phone message Friday.

Mrs. Davis has been trying to straighten out the mess for eight months. She's simultaneously applying for citizenship and an updated green card, spending $400 so far in fees.

Through phone calls and letters, she's dealing with the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Social Security Administration and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"It's really frustrating," Mrs. Davis said. "You run around in circles."

Mr. Kuck, a partner in the Atlanta immigration law firm Kuck Casablanca & Odom, said the problem might boil down to the wrong name on her card. That might be why Social Security couldn't find a record of her. Green cards are supposed to be renewed every 10 years, but even if her card is expired, her status as a permanent resident isn't affected, he said.

Her biggest problem might be that she's been voting, Augusta immigration attorney Paul Balducci said. Voting without citizenship is a deportable offense and could bring the naturalization process to a halt.

"All she can do is claim ignorance and hope they believe her," Mr. Balducci said. "It could be worse. I've got clients in jail trying to stay here. Hers is a bureaucratic problem, not a legal problem."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

NOT SURE YOU'RE AN AMERICAN?

If you have questions about your citizenship status, you can contact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at (800) 375-5283 or set up an appointment online at infopass.uscis.gov.

However, Charles Kuck, the national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, recommends caution before calling.

You might want to first confer with an immigration attorney to explore other options for verifying citizenship, he said.