A Brief Explanation of Why International Adoptees Get Deported

Yesterday the New York Times published an article that is getting a lot of attention: “Deportation a ‘Death Sentence’ to Adoptees After a Lifetime in the U.S.” 

I made the mistake of reading the comments on the tweet of the article, and wanted to clarify a few questions that repeatedly came up.

Why weren’t they citizens? Why did Obama deport them? Why did Trump deport them?

Until 2001, internationally adopted children were not automatically citizens. It was up to their adoptive parents to naturalize them.

Some parents got their children naturalized; some didn’t. Why not? They didn’t know. Their adoption agencies didn’t tell them. They forgot. They lost track of time. They didn’t want to. They found out late and tried to but the government agencies fouled up with paperwork.

Some adoptees assumed they were citizens automatically by being adopted to the U.S., and then found out as adults that they were not. It is, as I understand it, possible but extremely difficult to get citizenship as adoptees after age 18.

As a result of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), anyone who is not a U.S. citizen and is convicted of a felony (the definition of felony can vary widely among states) is subject to deportation.

That 1996 law included by default international adoptees, who arrived here in the US legally, as immigrants, as the children of U.S. citizens, whose parents failed to make them U.S. citizens.

Neither President Trump nor President Obama are responsible for the deportation of international adoptees. The 1996 law was signed by President Clinton (who also signed the Child Citizenship Act), and was the product of a GOP Congress.

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 granted citizenship automatically to children under 18, though the process depends on the visa with which the child traveled. Years in the making, the CCA had a hard time getting approval in what was then an anti-crime, anti-immigrant climate (see the 1996 law). Making the legislation retroactive was a goal, but was a deal breaker for many in the Republican Congress. As someone who was among the many people advocating for the legislation, I remember trying to get the CCA through was not at all easy.

Even in 2000, as today, many legislators did not see adopted children as real family members. Many saw them as immigrants and nothing more. That mindset continues in the current Congress, and across America.

There have been adoptees deported since the 1996 IIRIRA, to Korea, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Colombia, Japan, El Salvador, India, Thailand, Philippines, Argentina, Guatemala, and Russia. There well may be more that haven’t received press attention. There are probably some adopted adults who thought they were citizens, committed a felony of some sort (could be bad check writing to murder), who served time, and who are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now. There are probably thousands of internationally adopted adults who don’t know they are not citizens. Some might get in trouble with the law, get convicted, serve their time, and get deported.

Sending countries, including South Korea which has the highest numbers, are concerned (and rightly so) about the U.S. citizenship status of the children they have sent for adoption.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress for years to provide citizenship retroactively to the legally adopted children of U.S. citizens who were over 18 when the Child Citizenship Act was signed. It has not yet been introduced in the current 115th Congress. My sense is that there has been resistance in Congress because these adoptees have committed crimes (some of which are minor or are first offenses), and because the Members of Congress do not see international adoptees as genuine family members.

I am not aware of any other country which adopts children internationally and then allows them to be deported.

Adoptive parents need to make sure their children, whatever age, are official U.S. citizens, and have not only their passport (via the U.S. State Department) but also (via the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) their Certificate of Citizenship. Since government agencies use different databases and do not necessarily talk to each other, parents also need to check specifically with the Social Security Administration to make sure their child is listed as a citizen there too.

By the way, the cost of a Certificate of Citizenship is currently $1,369.00. That’s the fee charged by our government to get permanent proof of citizenship. Waiting times are several months to over a year.

There is now an office committed to reporting crimes by “undocumented immigrants.” Adult adoptees, brought to the U.S. legally with the permission of the U.S. government by U.S. citizens who failed to get them citizenship for whatever reasons, could be included there. Those cute little kids grow up. Some commit crimes, which nobody sanctions, and which happens in families all the time. They serve their sentences. They are then deported from the land that welcomed them to democracy, safety, and a better life. Some, like Phillip Clay, are deported and commit suicide, Some, like Joao Herbert, grow up in Ohio, sell a small amount of marijuana, are deported as a result of that first offense, and are killed.

A ‘death sentence’ is not too strong a phrase for the reality that the American government refuses to confer citizenship on people (children. orphans) who were brought legally to the U.S. by U.S. citizens to be adopted, who had no control over getting naturalized except through their parents, and are now subject to deportation. Yes, they committed crimes, some incredibly minor, and served their time as a result, like U.S. citizens do all the time.

It is shameful that the American government did not provide American citizenship automatically to orphans (according to U.S. law) who were brought to America, grew up in America with an American family, lost their original language, family, culture, and heritage, and whose parents (intentionally or inadvertently) failed to get them citizenship.

Welcome to the United States, little children.

3 thoughts on “A Brief Explanation of Why International Adoptees Get Deported

  1. Pingback: Korean Adoptees, Scholars, Activists Call For End to International Adoption | Light of Day Stories

  2. I work for a government agency. We had a young girl l trying to take her drivers permit test, but she was adopted from China, and did not have the proper documents to legally prove her date of birth!
    No citizenship, only some adoption documents translated from Chinese. I hope her adoptive parents fix this, before she’s deported too!

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