There’s a common adoption narrative in this country that foreign-born children adopted into American families have won the lottery: They’ve been rescued from poverty and should be grateful for the life of security and opportunity they’ve been granted as citizens of the United States.
I see firsthand the psychological, economic and political challenges undocumented adoptees face. Simply put: It’s appalling.
But the real story is much more complicated. In fact, tens of thousands of people who were legally adopted and raised in the U.S. by Americans lack the fundamental rights of citizenship and live in fear of deportation.
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As international adoptions started to become common in the United States after the Korean War, parents needed to file complicated naturalization paperwork for their adopted children to become citizens. For a variety of reasons — a lack of knowledge, neglect, clerical errors or other missteps — many failed to do so, and that has left tens of thousands of adoptees without legal status.
More than 150 people have been marching from New York to Washington DC since Oct. 26 in support of adoptees without citizenship and other immigrants lacking legal status to raise awareness about this humanitarian crisis. Our group, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and those with Temporary Protected Status fleeing natural disasters, persecution and war, will rally in front of the Supreme Court Tuesday as the high court hears arguments on continuing DACA.
I am an immigrant and an adoptee myself, originally from South Korea and raised in New Jersey. I was adopted into a family with parents who loved and cared for me and who took the necessary steps to ensure that I was a naturalized citizen of the United States. But too often, that’s not the case. As deputy director of the HANA Center, an immigrant advocacy group, and campaign manager for the national Adoptees for Justice coalition, I see firsthand the psychological, economic and political challenges undocumented adoptees face. Simply put: It’s appalling.
I know multiple people who were adopted into physically and emotionally abusive families, where they suffered trauma and neglect — which sometimes included not filing the requisite paperwork to give them the security and independence to stay in this country.
Adoptees without citizenship in the U.S. can struggle with day-to-day living. One adoptee, whom I’ll call Maria, was adopted from South Korea and raised by Americans in Texas only to discover she wasn’t a citizen after she tried unsuccessfully to access survivor benefits when her husband died.
And then there’s Judy, a Taiwanese American adopted and raised by missionaries who now resides in California. Judy’s green card and social security card were stolen but she is afraid to apply for replacements because she worries this might trigger a deportation process. Without identification, Judy has been unable to find steady work, lives in a leaky trailer and has trouble making ends meet.
There are efforts underway to rectify this situation. In May, a bipartisan team of four representatives in the U.S. House introduced the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019, which would grant international adoptees automatic citizenship, regardless of their age.
This legislation would close a loophole from an earlier law to address the problem of adoptees who weren’t naturalized. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 provided for automatic citizenship for adoptees under the age of 18 — keeping thousands of adult adoptees in legal limbo. A number of adoptees have already been deported to places where they do not know the language, culture or have any known family members.
Our laws have not adequately protected the rights of adoptees, but that can be fixed if enough people put pressure on our lawmakers to take decisive action now.
At this time of heightened xenophobia, the push for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a legal pathway for all undocumented immigrants — adoptees included — is more urgent than ever. Under the Trump administration, undocumented immigrants have been targeted by law enforcement and can find themselves in a state of constant fear, as Judy does. A misstep as minor as a traffic violation can put them at risk of deportation. That’s terrifying for adoptees, who did not choose to come here and yet know no other home.
What’s true for adoptees without citizenship is true for the broader immigrant community, which wants to live and work here legally, raise families and participate fully in society. My work in immigration advocacy has shown me all the ways the system is broken, but we can change that narrative together. Our laws have not adequately protected the rights of adoptees, but that can be fixed if enough people put pressure on our lawmakers to take decisive action now.