The purpose of adoption is to act in the best interests of the child and to find a permanent, secure placement for their life. Preserving and honoring the promise of adoption is a critical family values issue. However, for an estimated 35,000 adult adoptees, because of a gap in the law, this ideal has not been fulfilled.
The United States has been the destination for hundreds of thousands of adoptees; more than 245,000 between 1999 and 2016, according to Department of States statistics, nearly 13,000 of whom were adopted in Pennsylvania. The Department of State estimates that about 354,000 intercountry adoptees came to the United States since the 1940s.
The mechanics of bringing these children to the United States presents an interesting intersection between adoption and immigration laws and agencies. Until passage of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (CCA), adoptive parents had to proactively file for citizenship on behalf of their adopted children; failure to timely file for citizenship left adopted individuals in permanent resident status—a status that does not grant full protection from deportation.
On Feb. 27, 2001, the CCA took effect, automatically granting citizenship to most intercountry adoptees who were born on or after Feb. 27, 1983, (under the age of 18 as of Feb. 27, 2001). This protected many adopted individuals from the risk of deportation, but not all. The CCA does not cover: anyone born before Feb. 27, 1983; any child present in the United States whose adoption was not complete on Feb. 27, 2001; any adopted child who was present in the United States in nonimmigrant visa status; or any adopted child who entered the United States without a visa. This left an unknown number of current and future adoptees at risk for deportation. Several intercountry adoptees have felt the dire consequences of this gap in the law.
Adoptees may only discover that they lack U.S. citizenship as adults, when applying for jobs, travel documents or government benefits. If they have run into trouble with the law, these adult adoptees may find themselves unable to work, open a bank account or acquire a driver’s license. Furthermore, they are considered a “priority” for deportation under the current administration.
Monte Haines came to the United States in 1978 for adoption. His original adoptive placement did not succeed, leaving him in state foster care until he was legally adopted in 1981. Neither the state nor his adoptive parents nor his adoption agency filed for U.S. citizenship. Haines served in the U.S. military from 1993 to 1996, and believed that he was a U.S. citizen. Yet he was deported to South Korea in 2012 and is permanently barred from returning to the United States.
Philip Clay came to Philadelphia in 1983 at the age of 8 to live with his adoptive parents. Like Haines, he was also deported to South Korea in 2012. After five years of struggling to survive in an unfamiliar country and with an unfamiliar language, Clay died by suicide in South Korea on May 21.
Mauricio Capelli (name has been changed to protect privacy) came to the United States with his mother, when she married a U.S.-born citizen, who then adopted him as his son. When the adoption proceedings were finalized in court, Capelli’s father was assured there was nothing more to do in the process. In 2014, when returning from a vacation overseas, Capelli was stopped at customs in the Atlanta airport and held for two months based on a prior conviction he had already served time for. At the time of his vacation, he was working as a sheet metal apprentice and starting a business venture with two partners. He found himself deported to Costa Rica; unable to speak or understand Spanish, with only a garbage bag of his sparse belongings.
The United States has no centralized agency that tracks intercountry adoptees and when/whether parents (or in cases of failed placements, the state) properly and timely file for citizenship paperwork. Most sending countries did not follow up regarding citizenship of the children sent to the United States for adoption, except for the South Korean government, who estimates that 20,000 of its adopted children have no finalized record of achieving citizenship. The estimated number of adult adoptees at risk for deportation is 35,000, based on the Department of State figures of total adoptions since the 1940s and assuming that the measured rate of failing to record U.S. citizenship applications documented by the South Korean government is representative across all sending countries.
Most countries now allow adoptions to be finalized abroad, meaning that these adoptees are now covered by the CCA. However, some countries and situations still do not allow finalization before adopted children reach the United States—this means that there will continue to be a steady stream of children at risk for deportation until this hole in the law is fixed. In these situations, even under current law, the adoptive parents must undergo two additional processes before the child turns 18 to ensure that they become U.S. citizens; the adoption must be finalized; and the parents must file for citizenship on behalf of the child with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Attempting to close the gap in the law, in November 2015, the Adoptee Citizenship Act (ACA) was introduced with six senator co-signers. The ACA would grant retroactive U.S. citizenship to all internationally adopted individuals, regardless of when they were born. Several initiatives, including organized meetings and strategy sessions with congressional offices, led to the introduction of a House companion bill in June 2016. Several adult adoptees, adoptive parents and impacted adoptees have shared their stories and asked members of Congress for action. Unfortunately, although these bills were introduced with bipartisan support in the 114th Congress, neither bill reached a vote before the end of the session. The adoptee rights campaign is currently advocating for the ACA’s reintroduction in the 115th Congress.
On May 25, Philadelphia City councilmembers David Oh, Helen Gym and Al Taubenberger introduced a resolution urging the president and U.S. Congress to enact legislation securing citizenship of all intercountry adult adoptees. The resolution passed unanimously in Philadelphia City Council on June 7.
Internationally adopted individuals came to the United States at the request of U.S. citizen parents, with the help of the U.S. government and U.S. adoption agencies. Until the ACA or comparable legislation is passed, our country is not fulfilling the promise of adoption—permanent, secure placement for life—as adoptees continue to be at risk for deportation.
Reprinted with permission from the June 13, 2017 edition of the The Legal Intelligencer© 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.
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