NCAPA and Adoptees For Justice Celebrate National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM)
The fight for citizenship has been a long standing campaign among many immigrant communities. November marks the beginning of National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), and throughout the years, many intercountry adoptees have also found themselves in the fight for citizenship. Unknown to many, transnational adoptees, despite being adopted by American families, were not granted citizenship.
The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was created with the intention of giving international adoptees automatic citizenship, but due an arbitrary age cutoff in the bill, thousands of adoptees were left without citizenship. To this day, numerous adoptees have been deported or are living under the threat of deportation. A bill has been introduced in Congress, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021, which would fix the technical oversight in existing law and ensure all adoptees have citizenship, regardless of age.
Taneka Jennings from Adoptees for Justice (A4J), an initiative of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), and Gregg Orton, of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) sat down in honor of National Adoption Awareness Month to discuss the importance of fighting for citizenship for all adoptees through the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021.
Why is the issue of adoptee citizenship important to you?
Taneka Jennings: As a Korean international adoptee working in community-based immigrant rights settings over the past several years, I know that it could have easily been me who grew up in a home in which I did not receive citizenship. Like other intercountry adoptees, I did not choose to come to this country. Rather, I was brought here as an infant by U.S. citizen parents. Citizenship is a basic civil right that should have been guaranteed to us when we were adopted as children.
Intercountry adoption is part of a larger adoption and immigration history involving foreign intervention by countries like the U.S. in other countries around the globe, including South Korea. The fact that many adoptees in the U.S. still do not have citizenship points to a glaring oversight in existing law, and is a strong indicator of the brokenness in our adoption and immigration systems. For Adoptees For Justice and NAKASEC, citizenship for all adoptees is part of our larger campaign for citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, which recognizes that all people deserve to live in safety with their loved ones, with dignity and respect, and with full participation in society, including access to critical supports like healthcare.
Gregg Orton: NCAPA’s work centers around advocating for the AANHPI community and all the diverse populations within it. This includes AANHPI adoptees, and I am proud to count myself amongst them. The intersection of adoption and immigration law has created unique challenges for members of the community so this work is important to me both professionally and personally.
Can you give some background on the issue? How did this come to be?
Taneka Jennings: The United States opened its doors to intercountry adoption shortly after World War II, with an average of 14 children being adopted each year. During the Korean War, the international adoption of Korean children to the United States became increasingly common. Legislation was passed enabling Korean children to be adopted by U.S. citizen parents, namely the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. This act, in addition to admitting refugees to the United States, also reserved 4,000 visas for children under the age of ten who were adopted by U.S. citizens. In 1955, An Act for the Relief of Certain Korean War Orphans, also known as the “Holt Bill,” was passed, which opened a path for widespread transnational adoption.
Currently, over 350,000 transnational adoptees live in the U.S.; approximately one-third are of Korean descent and over half are Asian American. The vast majority of adoptees were adopted at a young age by White U.S. citizen parents. From the time the first intercountry adoptee arrived in the U.S. until 2001, citizenship for adoptees remained entirely unlegislated, meaning that it was up to individual adoptive parents to ensure their adoptive children were naturalized.
Gregg Orton: Recognizing that there was no legislation addressing adoptee naturalization, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was passed with the intent to automatically grant citizenship to the children of U.S. citizens, even if that child was born outside of the United States. Unfortunately, a technical oversight in the legislation meant that certain adoptees born before 1982, or those who did not enter the U.S. under an “orphan visa” were ineligible to receive the benefits of this Act. Today, there are numerous adoptees who should be citizens, but instead are facing deportation or have been deported. International adoptees were brought to the U.S. by their adoptive parents and should not be punished for the inaction of adoption agencies, the immigration system, or their adoptive parents to naturalize them.
Now that we understand some of the historical context, can you share how this impacts adoptee communities to this day?
Taneka Jennings: Because of this oversight by adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and our immigration system, tens of thousands of adult adoptees living in the U.S. still do not have citizenship, a relatively unknown fact. Despite these factors being beyond their control, adoptees without citizenship are not able to vote, access public systems, travel freely, and are at risk of deportation. For adoptees who have been deported, they are separated from their support systems and unjustly punished for the failures of adoption agencies and immigration systems. Adoptees for Justice has been working with several impacted adoptees to create a documentary sharing the experiences of adoptees without citizenship and why we need the Adoptee Citizenship Act so urgently.
Gregg Orton: Undocumented adoptees and other immigrants face many barriers when it comes to everyday necessities that are often taken for granted. Like many other undocumented immigrants, adoptees have lived their whole lives in America. Many have little to no memory of the countries they were born in and don’t know the language or culture of their birth countries. Without citizenship, adoptees have an incredibly difficult time seeking higher education, securing a job, accessing healthcare, owning a house, or simply getting a license. Deported adoptees are also restricted by reentry bars, meaning that, once deported, they cannot return to the United States for a certain amount of time, ranging between three to ten years. For those with criminal convictions, these bars are permanent and drive a deeper wedge between deported adoptees and their families.
Thank you for taking the time to educate us on the diverse experiences of transnational adoptees! As we close out our conversation, can you share some of the legislative solutions that exist and how to get involved in supporting adoptees without citizenship?
Taneka Jennings: Adoptees should not be punished for the failure of adoption and immigration systems. This is why it is essential to pass a clean and inclusive Adoptee Citizenship Act. This bill recognizes the oversight that has left many international adoptees in limbo, and would secure citizenship as a civil right for all adoptees who were adopted by U.S. citizens, regardless of age, criminal background, or deportation status. To support adoptees without citizenship, we encourage everyone to email their representatives and senators and urge them to support this act. Visit our website adopteesforjustice.org to get involved!
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