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Deporting Adult Adoptees from the United States

By Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, & Caitlin Kee Created: July 14, 2012 Last Updated: July 16, 2012
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Members of CASA de Maryland gather in front of the White House to celebrate the Obama administration's announcement about deportation of illegal immigrants June 15, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Members of CASA de Maryland gather in front of the White House to celebrate the Obama administration's announcement about deportation of illegal immigrants June 15, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Excited about turning 18 during a presidential election year, Jenna Johnson registered to vote with her high-school classmates and cast her first ballot. She canvassed her local Minnesota neighborhood as a volunteer signing up voters. Then four years later, while sharing stories with other Korean adoptees who remembered their naturalization ceremonies, Jenna couldn’t recall ever experiencing her own.

A few days later, she phoned what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check on her status and was shocked to learn that she was not a U.S. citizen. Her green card, which she kept as a memento from her adoption as a 2-year-old, had expired.

As a permanent resident, she had unknowingly committed voter fraud, a crime punishable by deportation.

As a permanent resident, she had unknowingly committed voter fraud, a crime punishable by deportation.

The story of Jenna Johnson (name changed at source’s request) might sound unusual. But she’s actually one of thousands of adult adoptees who were not grandfathered into the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (CCA), which as of Feb. 27, 2001, grants automatic citizenship to children who arrive in the United States on IR-3 visas. Parents whose children travel on IR-4 visas, which in recent years constitute almost half of all inter-country adoptions, finalize procedures by readopting their children in their states of residence at which time citizenship attaches.

Although an estimated 75,000 adopted children were protected on the bill’s enforcement date, adoptees who had already reached the age of 18 were left vulnerable. In this past decade, the media has reported on about 30 of the most urgent cases in which adult adoptees face removal and forced overseas separation from their families in the United States.

Although the CCA exempted adult adoptees like Jenna from losing permanent residency due to voter fraud, it still failed to make her and all other adult adoptees citizens. Why are adult adoptees, who are their parents’ legal children and heirs, any less American than those whose birthdays qualify them for CCA eligibility?

Don’t Grow Up

The stories of adult adoptees who lack citizenship and for whom adults acted in “the best interests of the child” bring into question adoption’s most fundamental claim— a forever home for an orphaned child. Yet good intentions do not suffice, and adult inadvertence with regard to a child’s rights creates lifelong hardships.

“My citizenship status is suspended in limbo,” says Jenna, who is now in her mid-30s and struggles to find work as a consequence of her expired green card status. “Why didn’t my adoptive parents get me naturalized?”

Jenna is not alone in asking this question. According to Bert Ballard, critical adoption studies scholar and professor of communications at Pepperdine University, “Hundreds of thousands of children have been adopted to the United States, and if even 1 percent of those naturalizations never happened under pre-CCA guidelines, then that oversight affects literally thousands of American families.”

The State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services could cross-reference the number of children who entered the United States on visas issued for the purpose of adoption and the number of these adopted children who were naturalized. However, there is no categorical means by which to identify and track the number of individuals who have already been removed.

Alongside media reports of pending removals, post-adoption service organizations in sending countries like South Korea provide a snapshot of the direst cases. Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link in Seoul, South Korea reports 10 Korean deported adoptees visiting its office for help since 2000. KoRoot, an NGO and guesthouse in Seoul, has brought public attention to three deported Korean adoptees in the past year. One of these adoptees, Tim Yee, was discovered homeless in Itaewon and in need of medical attention.

Adopted children do not emigrate to the United States of their own volition. Instead, globally networked agencies identify and refer them for permanent placement with their adoptive parents who, previous to the CCA’s passage, were expected to file naturalization papers before their children’s 21st birthdays. However, a lack of sufficient agency post-adoption follow-up contributed to parental ignorance or outright negligence.

Ticking Clock

Sometimes parents tried to naturalize their children but ran out of time, stranding their children in a condition of global orphaning.

Erlene Shepherd, adoptive mother to eight children, died of breast cancer before she could file her completed application for Kairi’s citizenship. Growing up in Salt Lake City with seven older siblings, Kairi Shepherd, adopted from India when she was 3 months old, missed CCA eligibility by a matter of months. After her mother passed away, Kairi was raised by her older siblings despite her grandmother suggesting that she be surrendered for adoption again.

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    What about the Child Citizenship of 2000: TITLE II—Protections for certain aliens voting based on reasonable belief of citizenship


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