Illinois Woman Told She Is No Longer an American
Bulgarian-born Niles woman, bestowed U.S. citizenship in 1981, struggles against sea of bureaucratic red tape while worrying she could be deported.
(CHICAGO TRIBUNE) Angela Boneva always thought she was an American, never imagining that valued piece of her identity could be stripped away.
Because her father was born in Indiana, an American consulate in Bulgaria bestowed U.S. citizenship on Boneva when she was growing up there in 1981. It granted Boneva privileges unavailable to her Bulgarian friends, allowing her to visit relatives in Chicago and then to move to the area in 1997.
Boneva, now 34 and a married mother, settled into a quiet American lifestyle in Niles — until the day a letter arrived from the U.S. State Department, upending her world. In six indifferently worded paragraphs it said, in effect: There was a mistake. You’re not an American.
Now worried she could be deported, Boneva has been struggling for seven years to solve her predicament, a journey of frustration that spotlights why a U.S. passport is such a treasured ticket for so many around the world.
“I thought it was some kind of joke,” said Boneva, inside her family’s modest condominium, where her U.S.-born son Ryan, 7, plays video games on the living-room TV. “I grew up believing I’m an American, and now they want to take that away? This is like a bad dream.”
Boneva’s situation also illustrates the sometimes dizzying, kaleidoscopic nature of the U.S. immigration system. While the U.S. has welcomed new arrivals for generations, critics of the current system say that overlapping bureaucracies and conflicting rules can lead to unimagined outcomes and complications, especially in an era of heightened national security concerns.
For Boneva, the journey has presented mystifying twists and turns.
After she sought to renew her U.S. passport in 2003, the State Department informed her that a consular employee’s decision to give her citizenship in 1981 broke a rule dictating that her father had to have lived in the U.S. for 10 years before she was born. His time in the U.S. before moving to Bulgaria totaled only six years.
But the letter pointed out, that same residency requirement was reduced in 1986 to five years, so someone in her position would be eligible for citizenship today — though not her.
Boneva received a form letter in 2003 saying “it does not appear” that she qualifies as a citizen anymore. She has made repeated but vain attempts to get a definitive answer from U.S. authorities. But just last month, she was sent the very same form letter again — this time with another woman’s photograph stapled above her name. That letter recommended Boneva contact another U.S. agency, which had already turned her away.
Exasperated, Boneva hired a lawyer, who proposed an ironic solution: Since her Bulgarian-born husband, Gueorgui Petrov, 36, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008 after Boneva sponsored him 10 years earlier, he could turn around and sponsor her to become a naturalized U.S. citizen — if, indeed, she is not a citizen now.
“What is the value of wasting time yanking this woman’s citizenship when she did nothing wrong?” said David Leopold, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. “The system is counterintuitive and confusing even in the best-case scenario.”
A State Department spokeswoman, Adriana Gallegos, declined to discuss Boneva’s situation, citing confidentiality laws. She sought to clarify the overall matter in an e-mailed comment, saying, “We don’t revoke citizenship; we revoke documents.” But she declined to elaborate on what that means for Boneva.
While Boneva has not been ordered to leave the country, she says her life has been on hold. She is afraid to travel, apply for a new driver’s license, or seek a job on the chance that she could be accused of identity fraud.
“I feel stuck,” said Boneva, whose husband is a contractor and furniture maker.
Though frustrating, the experience at least has helped Boneva discover some lost family history — in the Midwest and in Bulgaria.
Digging through old records to show U.S. officials, she learned of her family’s late 19th century roots in Akron, Ohio. Boneva’s grandfather Pete Boneff was born there in 1895 — his parents part of a wave of Eastern Europeans who arrived in the Midwest. There are currently about 20,000 Bulgarians in the Chicago area.
Her father, Steve Boneff, 80, was born in South Bend, Ind., where his parents had settled. He remembers playing with other American children until his homesick mother took him and his older brother Boris back to Bulgaria. Grandfather Pete Boneff remained in the U.S. with two sisters.
During Boneva’s research, her father finally shared details about how, as a young man in Bulgaria during the Cold War, he was sent to a communist labor camp for being a U.S. citizen.
In 1949, Pete Boneff died. By then, Bulgaria had become a fiercely repressive Soviet bloc country, making it difficult to return to the U.S. to settle family affairs.
Steve Boneff tried anyway and, after making travel arrangements, he was arrested on the street in their hometown, Rousse. He was sent to a labor camp for a few months, released, then arrested again and served another year and a half, Boneff said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Boneff said he was forced to sign Bulgarian government paperwork “renouncing” his U.S. citizenship before he was set free. However, that never affected his official status with the U.S. government.
“(U.S. citizenship) is something you cling to,” Boneff said.
Boneva, born in 1975, grew up in Rousse believing the same thing.
As a child, between long family vacations to Chicago, she used her U.S. passport to get into exclusive “dollar stores” in Rousse where imported chocolate and other coveted goods were available to those with foreign currency. “I knew: ‘I’m different than other people in Bulgaria because I’m an American citizen,'” she said.
After the fall of Bulgarian communism in 1990, the passport served as passage to begin her adult life in Chicago — where Boneva hoped to become a photographer.
In Niles, artistic photos of Ryan at nearby Lake Mary Anne hang inside the family’s apartment. There, Boneva ponders all the privileges her citizenship has given her family that they wouldn’t have in Bulgaria — the American education for her son, her husband’s zeal for American democracy and voting, and the seemingly limitless opportunities.
She worries about a sick grandmother in Rousse, but she is reluctant to visit.
“I don’t want to go back because I’m afraid it would be a one-way ticket,” Boneva said.