Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019: A Major Step Forward
International adoption is oftentimes talked about in benevolent terms and seen as a new beginning for children who are orphans or whose biological parents are unable to care for them. Since the 1940s, these beliefs along with the desire to become parents have driven Americans to adopt over 350,000 foreign born children (Choe, 2017). When adopted, the language of “forever family” and “forever home” are used to differentiate between the adoptee’s first family and to symbolize the permanency of adoption. The reality is that tens of thousands of adoptees in the United States lack citizenship and face the risk of deportation or incarceration (National Education Association, 2019). For undocumented, non-citizen adoptees who are deported, the United States is not their “forever home.” Their lives become characterized by displacement – first from their biological family and first country and later by their adoptive country. The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019, if passed, will hopefully protect adult adoptees in the United States from this stateless fate.
Scope and Focus
The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 is a federal bill that seeks to amend Section 320(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S. Code § 1431(b)) to correct a gap from the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which excluded adult adoptees from the benefit of automatic U.S. citizenship granted to child adoptees at that time. Many parents who adopted before 2000 assumed their children automatically became citizens when the adoption was finalized, others held off on citizenship due to added paperwork and financial costs after the cumbersome costs of adoption, and still others simply neglected to file for their child’s citizenship (Choe, 2017). Adoption agencies commonly have many services for prospective adoptive parents, but very few, if any, post-adoption services that could have guided parents along the citizenship process (Jones, 2017). The Adoptee Rights Campaign (2019) estimates that currently 35,000 adult adoptees, who were adopted as children and raised in the United States, lack citizenship. Among this group, over half (18,000) are Korean (Choe, 2017).
Upon passage into law, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 would provide automatic citizenship to adult adoptees in the United States who were adopted before the age of 18 to at least one U.S. citizen parent and are residing in the United States on the day of enactment of the Adoptee Citizenship Act (H.R. 2731). Adoptees who meet all other criteria, but who are not present on the date of enactment, would be eligible for automatic citizenship of the United States on the date they lawfully re-entered the United States (H.R. 2731). The Adoptee Citizenship Act also states that the grounds of inadmissibility outlined in the larger Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S. Code §1182) would not apply to adult adoptees seeking citizenship. The proposed bill does have certain limitations on citizenship. The Adoptee Citizenship Act would not grant citizenship to adoptees who entered the country illegally, do not currently possess legal status, or who have committed an unresolved crime (J. Fleischer, R. Yarborough, S. Jones, 2019). This means that some adoptees who have been deported to their original countries would be able to return and become U.S. citizens, but others would not.
Social and Legislative History
In 2000, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act with bipartisan support. This law granted automatic U.S. citizenship to children under 18 years of age who had been adopted to citizen parents and to most future international adoptees adopted to the United States by U.S. citizen parents (8 U.S. Code § 1431). This law was seen as a win for adoptive families and for the more than 75,000 international adoptees who received citizenship on February 21, 2001 (Schmitt, 2001). The passage of this law was timely with the rise of international adoption in the United States, which steadily climbed in the late 90s until the practice reached a peak in 2004 (Selman, 2009). The Child Citizenship Act excluded the earlier major era of adoption to the country. Following the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Asian adoptions to the U.S. significantly increased (Jones, 2015). By the mid-1980s, the Korean adoption system grew to the point that 25 children per day were leaving for international adoption (Jones, 2015). The majority came to the United States. According to the National Council on Adoption (2019), from the years 1953-1982, 89,000 adoptees arrived in the United States, none of whom received automatic citizenship. These adoptees, born before 1983, were already adults when the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was enacted and were unaffected by the new law.
One of these forgotten adoptees was Adam Crapser, who came to the attention of the media in 2015 after he received a notice of deportation. Crapser was adopted from Korea when he was three years old by one set of abusive parents, who relinquished him after six years, and then by the Crapsers, who were later criminally charged with neglect, rape, and child maltreatment (Jones, 2015). Crapser was told by his first set of adoptive parents that they had completed the citizenship paperwork, but in reality, they had not finished the process. Crapser, a married father of three, found out as an adult that he was not a citizen and applied for a green card (Jones, 2015). His green card application paired with his prior criminal record was what prompted an ICE investigation, which ultimately led to his deportation in 2016.
Crapser is not alone. Dozens of international adoptees who were legally adopted as children to the United States have been deported to Vietnam, Thailand, and Brazil (Choe, 2017). Some adoptees have even been removed from the U.S. for minor violations, such as unpaid parking tickets (Shim, 2019). The Korean adoptees have received the most attention because their cohort is so large. There are at least 10 – 12 known Korean American adoptees who have been deported to Korea, many of whom have experienced significant mental health troubles (Choe, 2017; Associated Press, 2019). Crapser is unique as the first deported adoptee to sue Holt Children’s Services for fraudulent adoption paperwork as well as the Korean government for negligent adoption practices (Associated Press, 2019).
Following the news of Crapser’s deportation and lawsuit, adoptees across the United States and repatriated adoptees living in Korea energized and lobbied U.S. politicians to amend the Child Citizenship Act, so that no more adult adoptees who grew up in the United States will have to face what Crapser and others have experienced. Their work paid off when Senator Klobuchar introduced the first iteration of the Adoptee Citizenship Act. Her state, Minnesota, has one of the highest numbers of Korean adoptees per capita in the world (Glover, 2010). The proposed bill was first introduced into the Senate and House of Representatives during the 2015-2016 cycle as the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2015 (S. 2275, 2015; H.R.5454, 2016). Despite the Adoptee Rights’ Campaign’s fundraising and publicity efforts, the Adoptee Citizenship Act did not pass into law during the 114th Congress. The Adoptee Citizenship Act was again introduced in the 2017-2018 Congress. H.R.5233 was sponsored by Representative Smith along with 46 additional co-sponsors, a substantial increase from the previous attempt, which had 7 co-sponsors. South Korean representatives came to the United States to testify in support of the Adoptee Citizenship Act to Congress in the spring of 2017 (Choe, 2017). Yet, the Adoptee Citizenship Act again stalled in Congress.
Despite bipartisan support, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 has a very limited legislative history. The bills, H.R.2731 and S.1554, have made it as far as the previous renditions. In the Senate, S.1554 was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. In the House of Representatives, the identical bill has progressed slightly further. The Committee on the Judiciary referred it to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. These actions were taken in June of 2019, and there has not been any movement since the early summer. In the current political climate, the Adoptee Citizenship Act is being read as an immigration bill, not an adoption bill. In recent years, there has been a growing fervor of anti-immigration sentiment nationally. Senate Majority Leader McConnell has stopped legislation that would benefit migrant children at the border, bills that would protect “Dreamer” immigrants, and blocked immigration efforts during the Obama administration, as well (Carney, 2019; Pace, 2014; Vogt, 2019). The President’s director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Cuccinelli (2019), recently said, “no one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American.” This sentiment was acted upon in August of 2019, when a new policy was released, no longer granting the children born to or adopted by U.S. military service members stationed abroad automatic citizenship (Alverez, Browne, & Sands, 2019). While the ruling will affect only a small number of people, estimated at 100 annually (Alverez, Browne, & Sands, 2019), a precedent of limiting citizenship has been set which will make further action on the Adoptee Citizenship Act during this administration unlikely.
Traditional U.S. Values
The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 embodies the values of equality, justice, and democracy. The proposed bill attempts to make international adoptee status equal, despite age, between those who have citizenship and those who do not. Opponents of this bill might argue that it does not promote equality because it treats adoptees as categorically different from other immigrants to the United States who are not given automatic citizenship. This argument is weakened by the existence of the Child Citizenship Act, which already treats adoptee immigrants differently than other immigrant children by law. This bill also attempts to make adoptees equal with respect to the biological children of parents. When children are adopted, the law states that they receive the same rights, duties, and privileges as children naturally born to their American citizen parents (Adoptee Rights Campaign, 2019). The law, as it stands, does not treat adoptees equally and undermines the adoptive family unit through family separation via deportation (Jones, 2017).
The Adoptee Citizenship Act would bring justice to some deported adoptees, who would be able to obtain citizenship upon their return to the United States. Those who were deported would not have been had they automatically received citizenship on February 21, 2001 along with the child adoptees at the time. Dr. Diane B. Kunz, Executive Director for the Center for Adoption Policy (2019), remarked, “the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019, if passed, will rectify this gap and right an injustice to adoptees that has existed for too long.” Passage of the Adoptee Citizenship Act cannot undo time away from families and the total uprooting of lives. Being able to re-enter the United States as citizens would be a semblance of justice.
Lastly, the Adoptee Citizenship Act recognizes the function of a democracy and that adoptees, who grew up in the United States, are American. Without citizenship, adoptees cannot apply for a passport, driver’s license, and student loans (Wang, 2015). They may be unable to find meaningful employment, receive promotions at work, or open bank accounts, all of which would add to the economy. Most critical to a democracy, adoptees who know no other country cannot vote and have a political voice on policies that affect them. Senator Collins (2019) argued, “Individuals who were legally adopted by loving U.S. parents, raised with American values, and are now contributing members of our society should not be denied citizenship due to a technicality in current law.”
Evaluation of Values
The Adoptee Citizenship Act, while an adequate start, does not exhibit total equality. The proposed bill excludes adoptees who do not have current legal status, for example those who entered the country on tourist visas and are considered visa overstays, and adoptees who originally entered the country illegally (Fleischer, Yarborough, and Jones, 2019). These types of entry errors are not by the fault of the adoptee, and the adoptee should not be barred from citizenship for a choice in which they had no agency. A somewhat similar group of people are the Dreamers, brought into the United States illegally by their parents. Many conservatives have said variations on what Senator Lankford (2017) or Senator Gardner (2017) have stated respectively – “we do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parents” and “children who came to this country without documentation, through no fault of their own, must have the opportunity to remain here lawfully.” This must also be said for adult adoptees whose parents failed to complete their naturalization paperwork.
The bill additionally excludes adoptees who have a felony on their criminal record from being able to gain citizenship (Fleischer, Yarborough, and Jones, 2019.) Some Republicans like Cuccinelli (2019) believe that immigration is a “privilege” for those “who can stand on their own two feet, self-sufficient, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” They might argue that adoptees were deported due to a felony, and having a criminal record may indicate that they could be a public danger or a drain on the government if allowed citizenship. According to this set of values, deportation may be seen as justice. The question remains for adoptees, like Crapser, who have served their time in jail for their crimes, when will they stop being punished?
The Adoptee Citizenship Act would give equal citizenship to some adoptees, correct injustices to some deported adoptees and grant some adoptees who have not been able to enjoy the rights and privileges with American status the ability to fully participate in their country. The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 does not apply the values of equality, justice, and democracy equally among this group of adoptees; however, the bill is a needed starting point to begin to address the gaps in the current law that have tragically failed international adoptees.
The Adoptee Citizenship Act, while imperfect, is a monumental bill. Media attention around Crapser’s case and this bill have cast light on just some of the challenges adoptees face in adulthood. If this bill becomes law, it will be a story of reclamation on an individual level for all of the adoptees who will gain citizenship and its benefits for the first time. On a global scale, the passage of this bill would signify something much larger. This is the first federal law that was drafted by adoptees for adoptees (Wang, 2015). Passage of the Adoptee Citizenship Act would give power, voice, and agency to a group of people whose early years are defined by a total lack of power, voice, or agency.
Adoptee Rights Campaign. (2017). The Adoptee Citizenship Act. Retrieved from https://adopteerightscampaign.org/aca/
Alvarez, P, Browne, R, & Sands, G. (2019, August 29). Citizenship will no longer be automatic for children of some US military members living abroad. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/28/politics/us-military-employee-citizenship-rule/index.html
Associated Press. (2019, January 23). Adoptee deported by the U.S. to sue South Korea, adoption agency. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/adoptee-deported-u-s-sue-south-korea-adoption-agency-n961776
Blunt, Hirono, Collins, Klobuchar introduce adoptee citizenship act of 2019. (2019, May 22). Retrieved from https://www.blunt.senate.gov/news/press-releases/blunt-hirono-collins-klobuchar-introduce-adoptee-citizenship-act-of-2019
Carney, J. (2019, June 27). McConnell: Senate will not pass revised House border bill. The Hill. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/450625-mcconnell-senate-will-not-pass-revised-house-border-bill
Choe, S. (2017, July 2). Deportation a “death sentence” to adoptees after a lifetime in the U.S. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/world/asia/south-korea-adoptions-phillip-clay-adam-crapser.html
Domonoske, C. (2016, November 17). As adoptee in U.S. awaited deportation, his Korean birth mother studied English. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/17/502413247/as-adoptee-in-u-s-awaits-deportation-his-korean-birth-mother-is-studying-english
Fleischer, J, Yarborough, R, and Jones, S. (2019, May 14). House bill could help foreign adoptees who later learned they aren’t U.S. citizens. NBC Washington. Retreived from https://www.nbcwashington.com/investigations/House-Bill-Could-Help-Foreign-Adoptees-Who-Later-Learned-They-Arent-US-Citizens-509928651.html
Glover, K. (2010, April 22). New book “HERE” highlights Korean adoptee experience in Minnesota. Minn Post. Retrieved from https://www.minnpost.com/arts-culture/2010/04/new-book-here-highlights-korean-adoptee-experience-minnesota/
Ingber, S & Martin, R. (2019, August 13). Immigration chef: ‘give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own 2 feet.’ National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/750726795/immigration-chief-give-me-your-tired-your-poor-who-can-stand-on-their-own-2-feet
Israel, J. (2019, August 13). Trump official accidentally implies that politicians like Ted Cruz have no right to U.S. citizenship. Think Progress. Retrieved from https://thinkprogress.org/cuccinelli-accidentally-implies-that-politicians-like-ted-cruz-have-no-right-to-us-citizenship-13f896291d76/
Jones, M. (2015, April 1). Adam Crapser’s bizarre deportation odyssey. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/magazine/adam-crapsers-bizarre-deportation-odyssey.html?module=inline
Jones, M. (2015, January 14). Why a generation of adoptees is returning to South Korea. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/magazine/why-a-generation-of-adoptees-is-returning-to-south-korea.html
National Council for Adoption. (2019). Adoptee citizenship act of 2019. Retrieved from http://www.adoptioncouncil.org/files/large/857db2720916d94
National Education Association. (2019). Protecting international adoptees without citizenship. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/74787.htm
Neufeld, J. (2017, August 30). What have republicans said about dreamers?. Niskanen Center. Retrieved from https://www.niskanencenter.org/republican-dreamer-quotes/
Pace, J. (2014, November 21). Why it took 6 years for Obama to act on immigration. PBS News Hour. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/heres-why-it-took-6-years-for-obama-to-act-on-immigration
Schmitt, E. (2001, February 27). Children adopted abroad win automatic citizenship. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/27/us/children-adopted-abroad-win-automatic-citizenship.html
Selman, P. (2009). The rise and fall of intercountry adoption in the 21st century. International Social Work, 52(5), 575-594. DOI: 10.1177/0020872809337681
Shim, E. (2019, May 29). Bill aims to protect Korean adoptees from deportation. United Press International. Retrieved from https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/05/29/Bill-aims-to-protect-Korean-American-adoptees-from-deportation/2051559102228/
Starr, A. (2015, May 19). Supporters aim to protect adult adoptees from deportation. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2015/05/19/407868110/supporters-aim-to-protect-adult-adoptees-from-deportation
U.S. Department of State. (2018). Adoption Statistics. Retrieved from https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/Intercountry-Adoption/adopt_ref/adoption-statistics.html
Vogt, B. (2019). Mitch McConnell: House “Dreamer” citizenship bill will “probably not” be brought up for Senate vote. The Washington Times. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/jun/6/mitch-mcconnell-house-dreamer-citizenship-bill-wil/
Wang, F. (2015, November 13). Bill would provide retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/bill-would-provide-retroactive-citizenship-all-international-adoptees-n462151