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Foreign-born adoptees discover they’re not U.S. citizens

Up to 49,000 adoptees may lack the citizenship that they and others long assumed to be theirs.

Korean adoptee Adam Crapser, left, with daughters, Christal, 1, Christina, 5, and his wife, Anh Nguyen, in the family's living room in Vancouver, Wash. in 2015. Crapser, whose adoptive parents failed to make him a U.S. citizen, was deported to South Korea in 2016.
Korean adoptee Adam Crapser, left, with daughters, Christal, 1, Christina, 5, and his wife, Anh Nguyen, in the family's living room in Vancouver, Wash. in 2015. Crapser, whose adoptive parents failed to make him a U.S. citizen, was deported to South Korea in 2016. Read more(AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

For thousands of people who were adopted from overseas, the Adoptee Rights Campaign says, there's no place that's home.

That is among the sobering findings of a new study, which estimates that as many as 49,000 adult adoptees, brought here as babies, toddlers, and young children, lack the U.S. citizenship that they and their American families had assumed was automatically theirs.

Some have already been deported to homelands they don't know or remember.

"This is our lives. Our lives have been diminished. Our lives are at stake," said Joy Kim-Alessi, acting director of the advocacy group Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC).

ARC undertook the research to gain a more complete and nuanced understanding of the problem, and to help convince Congress of the need for a comprehensive remedy. It studied records from the State Department, Citizenship and Immigration Services, state governments, and South Korean authorities, among others. In addition to gaps and inconsistencies in the counts, the researchers found that some adoptees had been brought into the country on non-immigrant visas that provide no path to citizenship.

"The U.S. international adoption system is flawed, and adopted children are paying the price," the ARC study says. "Disparities in the U.S. adoption system are jeopardizing thousands of American families."

It has been a quiet crisis. Years ago, when international adoption was relatively new, many parents mistakenly believed that adoption and naturalization were the same thing. In fact, they were two separate processes until 2000.

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 made it possible for many, but not all, foreign-born children to gain automatic citizenship. It didn't cover adoptees who were 18 or older at that time, leaving thousands in limbo.

Even some immigration lawyers didn't understand that. And the federal government didn't check, uninterested in whether the children it allowed to legally enter the country were eventually naturalized as citizens.

Now, those circumstances pose danger.

President Barack Obama was tougher on immigrants than many people realized, but President Trump is cracking down on all fronts: on migrants trying to enter the country legally, on those here without proper documents — and on adoptees who were brought into the U.S. as children by well-intentioned adoptive parents.

Today, some adoptees are undocumented. Some are in custody awaiting deportation. Some are legal permanent residents who can openly work to obtain citizenship. Others have already been sent back to countries where they can't speak the language and don't know a soul.

And there's slim chance of a quick, legislative fix.

In March, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018 was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) and in the House by Rep. Adam Smith  (D., Wash.). An earlier iteration went nowhere. Now, Skopos Labs, which forecasts congressional action, gives the bill a 5 percent chance to pass in the House, 16 percent in the Senate.

"There are folks who don't see children, they see immigrants. And they hate immigrants," said Anne Martin Montgomery, an adoptive mother and Philadelphia-area ARC advocate. "They want to cut down the number of immigrants, period."

The number of new international adoptions has slowed dramatically, as traditional top-sending nations such as China, Russia, and Guatemala installed new limits or shelved their programs entirely. Foreign adoptions stood at 15,719 in 1999, surged to 22,989 in 2004, and by last year had fallen to 4,717.

The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018 would cover all adoptees with American citizen parents, provided that the children entered the country legally. That's important because many adoptees who lack citizenship came here under a variety of visas.

For example, ARC research discovered, Iranian adoptees were brought into the country on visitor visas. Others entered on student visas.

"We're talking about people who came here legally. Nobody tried to sneak in," Kim-Alessi said. "But that's not the sentiment of our lawmakers. … There is this fear that we're trying to get away with something."

She grew up in California after being adopted in 1967 as a 7-month-old baby from a South Korean orphanage. She was shocked to be told she wasn't a citizen when she applied for a passport at age 25. Fortunately, her green card was still valid, meaning that she was a permanent resident.

Many adoptees learn their true status the same way, by accident, when they fill out a job application or seek a government benefit. For those uncertain about their immigration status, even asking the question can be risky, because it alerts federal authorities to look closer.

The fate of adoptees who were deported after being convicted of crimes — they lacked the citizenship that would have kept them in the U.S. — has generated international news.

Phillip Clay, a 42-year-old Philadelphia man who had been deported to South Korea, killed himself last year by jumping from the 14th floor of an apartment building.

Clay was 8 when he left the Eunpyeong Orphanage. As an adult, he became enmeshed in a cycle of drugs, jails, and mental-health centers, court records show. He was deported in 2012 and spent five years struggling to adjust to South Korea before taking his life.

ARC leaders say the broad publicity around those convicted of crimes makes it hard to shift the conversation to law-abiding adoptees — people who grew up as Americans and now need help with citizenship. Because that population has the most to lose, it least wants to come forward.

"For close to 20 years, I've been living in constant fear that I would be taken away from the only place I've ever known," a Vietnamese adoptee told the Inquirer last year.

The woman, willing to be identified only by her first name, Denise, was 9 months old when she was airlifted to an Arkansas refugee center near the end of the Vietnam War. She learned that she lacked citizenship when she applied to become a Philadelphia police officer in the mid-1990s.

Today, the ARC study says, between 25,000 and 49,000 adult adoptees from more than two dozen countries have no American citizenship. Earlier estimates put the peak number at about 30,000. California leads the nation with 3,493 who lack status. Pennsylvania ranked fourth, with 2,345, and New Jersey was 11th with 1,639.

ARC is working to build support in Congress, form alliances with other organizations, and encourage people to call or write to their political representatives.

"Nothing quick happens in Congress," said ARC communications coordinator Sung Cho, who was adopted from South Korea. "They look at this as more of an immigration issue than a family matter. We look at it as family. We were all adopted by American families."