Until 2001, when Korean children were sent to the U.S. for overseas adoption, it was their adoptive parents’ responsibility to naturalize them as U.S. citizens.
In addition, adoption agencies both in Korea and the U.S. were responsible for post-adoption services that should monitor adoptees and their adoptive parents until the children are fully integrated into U.S. society. This is a key principle of overseas adoption.
However, the reality is not the same as the principle. The U.S. deports foreign adoptees aged 29 and older who haven’t been naturalized when they commit certain crimes. Washington must stop this practice immediately.
Unlike European governments, the U.S. government did not automatically grant citizenship to overseas adoptees until 2001. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 came into force on Feb. 27, 2001, allowing all internationally adopted children under 18 on that date, and all those adopted in the future, to become U.S. citizens automatically. However, adoptees 18 or older on that date could not be covered by the act.
Many adoptees discovered, usually when applying for federal student loans or a passport, that they had never been naturalized by their foster parents. I know three Korean adoptees ― Monte, Tim, and Matthew ― who could not benefit from the act.
Monte was born in 1970 in Korea and was sent to the U.S. in 1978. Although he served in the U.S. military, he was deported to Korea in 2009. Monte claims that when he was arrested, he did not know that he had been set up by his truck driving partner to transport drugs. Like most other Korean adoptees sent to the U.S., Monte is culturally American and does not speak Korean.
Tim was born in Korea in 1974, and in 1977 he went to the U.S. as an adoptee. His adoptive parents cut their ties with him after he graduated from high school, so he left his home and wandered throughout the U.S. He became homeless and addicted to drugs for over 15 years. Ultimately he was arrested, imprisoned, and deported to Korea, where he became homeless again in April 2011. He has no trace of his birth family on his adoption records.
Matthew was born in Korea in 1978 and he went to the U.S. at the age of six months, but his parents did not naturalize him. He was not deported, but willingly returned to Korea in February 2011 to be close to his family and experience Korea as a young man.
When the Seoul government discovered that Matthew, technically an “overseas Korean citizen,” was back in the country, he received a compulsory enlistment notice from the Korean military. After a prolonged struggle over paperwork that reflected both his permanent residency in the U.S. and his Korean citizenship, Matthew was finally granted an exemption from military enlistment because he is also technically an “orphan.”
Matthew would like to have dual citizenship, just as other adoptees have that option. But because he received his Green Card only in the past few years, he would be in his 40s by the time he gains U.S. citizenship. In the interim, he would be required to live within the U.S. Meanwhile, adoptees with only U.S. citizenship may live in Korea indefinitely on an F-4 visa.
As the U.S. leads the world in terms of the numbers of children adopted from other countries, it should also lead the world in the humanitarian treatment of them. However, we are now seeing that adoptees from not just Korea, but many other countries, are being deported from the U.S. even on minor charges.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), amended and expanded by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996, non-citizens may apply for “waivers” to deportations, based on factors such as length of residency in the U.S. and potential hardship if deported.
However, no such exceptions are available to “aggravated felons.” Aggravated felonies include crimes such as drug trafficking, but may also include misdemeanor charges. For instance, the IIRAIRA expanded the INA so a person may be treated as an aggravated felon for committing a theft punishable by only one year in prison. This opens up the risk of adoptees to be deported for petty crimes such as shoplifting.
While recognizing that non-adopted people who immigrated as children are also subject to this law, I believe that the U.S. Congress, through passing the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, has already shown its belief that international adoptees should be automatic citizens.
I urge the U.S. government to correct defects in the U.S. legal system by quickly passing an amendment that would allow all overseas adoptees ― even adults like Tim, Matthew, and Monte ― to rightfully receive their U.S. citizenship. This would stop the deportations and also give the benefits and protection of citizenship to all law-abiding international adoptees.
Dr. Kim Sung-soo is the author of a biography of Korean Quaker Ham Sok-hon and executive director of Transparency International-Korea. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.