American Parents by Adoption: Are Your Kids American?

by Luanne

Today I read an article by Matthew Salesses, “This Is Not About #Adoption.”  As usual for Matthew, the piece is smart, long, and covers a lot of territory.  It’s also super readable.  If you care about adoptees and adoption you need to read it.

I want to bring up one section of the piece.   A section that haunts me terribly.  He writes:

At this moment in cultural time, transnational adoptees in America are being deported for petty thefts, unwitting transportation of drugs, personal possession of marijuana. Some of them are learning for the first time—as they are deported—that they are not U.S. citizens. Their adoptive parents never went through the process of naturalizing them, and suddenly they are thrown into Korea sometimes with no knowledge of the language or culture, with no one they know, as if they could just go back to a life they no longer have.

Then Salesses goes on to list some cases of particular adoptees who are awaiting deportation or who were deported.  They either knowingly or unknowingly committed a crime which made them vulnerable.

And why?  They are Americans.  Raised in America.  By Americans. Speaking American English and steeped in American culture.

All because their adoptive parents neglected or chose not to get them naturalized.

This makes me feel ill.  I can’t imagine.  The minute we were able to get our kids naturalized, we did it. At the age of three, Marc attended a naturalization ceremony in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was asked to speak to hundreds of people (imagine me caught “in headlights”).

It was a big deal to Marc because the ceremony made it a big deal.  I had no idea how important it could be for him in a tangible sense, but I felt it was important for him as a family member.  He was being raised to be an American, so didn’t it make sense to make it official?  Of course.

I never realized how important it could be for his future.

Marisha’s naturalization was different as the laws had changed.  Hers was handled by paperwork, and we were told that the new law allowed international adoptees to be eligible to run for President of the United States (a point I have not been able to confirm in writing).   She had no ceremony and nothing to mark her legal transformation into an American citizen.  She’s grown up knowing she was American.

Reading the Salesses article, though, I wonder what it would be like if my husband and I hadn’t had the kids naturalized.  What if they just assumed they were Americans and one day learned that, oops, Mom and Dad didn’t bother to make sure they had the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?

What if they were (involuntarily) sent to Korea to live permanently and not allowed to live in the United States?  As complete-and-utter Americans, how could they cope?  Not just with living in a country to which they are expected to belong and do not.  But with the betrayal of the United States and the adoptive parents.

It’s that sense of betrayal that leaves me with a feeling of being punched in the gut.


  1. Its a good thought. I wonder how often this actually happens though?

  2. I was born in Canada & adopted by Americans. When I was 15, I applied for a US passport to go to Germany on a school exchange program. That was when we learned that not only was I *not* an American, but I was not Canadian either. I was officially “Stateless” since the US considered me legally born to Canadians, while Canada considered me legally born to Americans.

    I got on a fast track to naturalization, went through the ceremony in court, and got my passport in time for the trip. But I’ve never lost the feeling of being part of 2 countries/families but not really belonging to either.

    • Carrie, was your situation a unique adoption experience (American adopting a Canadian baby) or was it part of many (like the adoptions from Korea)? Did your parents use an agency that didn’t bother to explain things to them? Just wondering how this happened (and so glad you got it fixed in time)! I know that my kids were born in Korea and we used a large and well-known agency that helped us navigate the naturalization stuff.

  3. There are thousands of adoptees in this position – child citizenship act of 2000 was created to fix the issue of adoptive parents not obtaining citizenship papers and it worked for many but still left an entire group(s) out. Those are the ones that are at risk of deportation – not just Korean adoptees either, any adoptees under a certain visa type that did not complete the requirements. (I read somewhere there is approx 18,000 Korean adoptees that no one knows if the citizenship process was completed for or not)

    This NCFA publication is about the issue:

    What I find most troubling is that this has been going on for ten plus years and yet nothing has been done – but they can do bus tours to streamline the paperwork and get adoption tax credit bills passed…who is rallying around the adoptees.

    Korea’s new special adoption law was supposed to require the parents to go to court which would create the type of visa that granted automatic citizenship – I read on the MPAK blog last night that they might not require the court attendendance, which would then create the visa’s that require the separate process for citizenship.

    • Just found a good article I read awhile ago on the subject…
      From: Foreign Policy in Focus website

    • Tao, it’s incredible that this has happened. I know that for my kids, the agency (Bethany) helped us with the naturalization process. It was our caseworker who told us exactly what to do and when to do it. They were very on top of things. We recognized it as something very important and followed the instructions, which as I mentioned in the post were different for both kids because the law had changed regarding international adoptees (and it sounded like changed very positively). It’s hard to understand people not knowing their kids were not citizens,but I guess if an agency doesn’t tell adoptive parents, it might be easy to be lulled into “assuming” that a baby who comes into the family by adoption has the same rights to the citizenship of the parents as a baby who comes into the family by birth. I don’t think I would ever think this because I am of a more worrywort personality.

      • Being a worrywort myself has proven to be invaluable. What I have gleamed from discussions (no claim to accuracy) that it might also have been a cost factor for the COC…they already spent so much money and now needed to spend more. Not sure if the COC is different from just doing the naturalization process or not being an outsider.

  4. A few people are attempting to collect cases. Here is one: and here is another

    There have been several attempts by a coalition of adoptees and adoptive parents to make the CCA of 2000 retroactive to include all adoptees, but congress has been unwilling, and the reason why is because of the crime element. Apparently congress is very excited to get international adoptees to the U.S. but if they commit a crime, instead of the responsible thing (jail time in the U.S.) they want to deport them to their country – a place where they have no ties, no language, and no opportunity for employment. One adoptee was murdered after being deported. Another, Jennifer Haynes, left her husband and children behind in the states after being deported to India. Her crimes – drug possession at 17 and writing forged checks.

    If more adopted parents took up this cause I think it would have a larger chance of getting the law changed.

    Also, the FACE act which was to replace the child’s country of birth on the amended birth certificate did not pass, therefore your child can’t be eligible for President of the United States.

    • JaeRan, thanks for the links. I posted them over on our Facebook page. So disturbing. Also, thanks for answering our decades old question about elibigility for POTUS. I don’t think my daughter is going to want to hear it because it’s been part of our family lore for years as our caseworker told us it was “for sure.”

  5. Just to clarify one point: the law was indeed changed, but it didn’t alter the requirement that the President of the United States be a “natural-born Citizen” according to Article II of the U.S. Constitution. “Natural-born Citizen” means born in the United States, and that would require an amendment to the Constitution to change it.

    • Tracy, we believed our agency (or was it just the case worker?) and fell for it hook line and sinker, that Marisha could be President. It’s disturbing to learn it’s not true. Thanks for the link to your blog. We are now following you on Twitter :).

      • tracyrhb says:

        I’m sorry that you were given that information. It’s disturbing that an agency or a caseworker would get something so basic wrong. (Not that all of our kids are likely to be presidential candidates some day, but these are the sorts of aspirations and dreams parents discuss with their kids all the time when they are pointing out the possibilities of life.)
        I just followed you back. 🙂

  6. rebecca says:

    Shame on the adoption agencies that are “advocates” for these children to find them families. You would think that this would be another requirement that they would make you do, or educate the prospective parents. My agency told me my child was a citizen as soon as she landed in the US. She did not become a citizen until six months later!!! I am pretty sure this happens due to ignorance. After all that one goes through to get a child, once the child is home you feel like how could there be more needed paperwork. I fortunately read a similar article and filed the paperwork as soon as possible. The story I read the person was in their 60’s and got a DUI and deported. Cruel!!!

  7. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Very interesting, sad, and distressing in many ways. Makes me happy that we went through the INS to make sure our China-born daughter was a US citizen. I would urge all US parents adopting from another country to make sure that they take the time and go through the process to make their children US citizens, and keep the paperwork to prove it. I do have to say that I am not particularly concerned or bothered by the fact that a child born in another country and adopted to the US cannot become POTUS, though.

  8. Krissylyn says:

    If this is true, those American parents should be held accountable. Both of our adoption agencies (two different agencies four years apart) drilled it into our heads to have the boys naturalized. It is just unbelievable to me that parents would be so lazy, naïve or stupid not to do so.

    • Krissylyn says:

      Further, sorry but we (all adoptive parents) did not make it through the adoption journey by being ignorant of facts!

      • Krissylyn, it is kind of hard to understand how this kind of thing can happen today, although there are bureaucratic snafus all the time, and adoptive parents need to err on the side of caution. But back in the days before the internet, there wasn’t a way to really find out about this stuff. I think the agencies need to be accountable, too. What a horrible oversight. Thanks for writing!

  9. That’s horrible! In Denmark I’m quite sure that all adopted children are automatically given a Danish citizenship. The rules even changed shortly after I came to Denmark so now, you can’t see anywhere, that adopted children are not Danish (we have exactly the same social security numbers as people born in Denmark and exactly the same rights and obligations), and that’s how I think it should be.


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