An Unnerving Reality: We’re Deporting Adoptees

May 29, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to:

Imagine that your daughter, whom you raised from infancy, was convicted of forgery. You certainly wouldn’t be surprised if she were prosecuted for that felony and, while it would be heartbreaking, you’d expect her to be punished, probably even imprisoned. Now let’s add one more element to this real-life scenario: How would you feel if the penalty imposed on your 30-year-old child – who suffers from multiple sclerosis – was deportation to another country where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the native language?

I am not making this up. It is happening today. It is obviously devastating to the woman facing a jarringly disproportionate punishment for the crime she committed, but it is also much more than that. It is a vivid example of the unfairness and inequality that sometimes exist in the world of adoption.

What may be most unnerving is the fact that this is not an aberration; while it is hardly commonplace, it has happened again and again. And there has been virtually no media attention, or public outrage, or embarrassment on the part of immigration officials, or concerted effort to reform law and policy so that people who were adopted into their families are placed on a level playing field with their biological counterparts.

Here’s the core of the case: Kairi Abha Shepherd was adopted from India into the United States in 1982, when she was three months old. Her mother, a single woman in Utah, died of cancer eight years later, so Shepherd went on to live with guardians for the remainder of her childhood. More details are in this news story from last week:

In short, Shepherd’s adoption took place before 2000, when a new federal statute conferred automatic U.S. citizenship on most children adopted internationally into this country; the law included a retroactive provision, but she was adopted a few months before it kicked in. So the adults in her life were supposed to fill out paperwork for her to become a citizen – but, like many others, they either didn’t know or, for whatever reasons, never got around to doing it.

As a consequence, when Shepherd was convicted in 2004 of forgery to feed a drug habit, U.S. authorities did what they do to many felons who don’t have documents showing they are Americans: They started deportation proceedings, which are now coming to a head. It doesn’t seem to matter that Shepherd has lived as an American for all but a few months of her life, and it is an extraordinary price to pay for a bureaucratic oversight made by the adults who raised her.

Again, this is not an aberration. Last year, a 31-year-old mother of three, who was adopted from Korea when she was eight months old, was held at a federal detention center in Arizona and faced deportation after a second theft conviction. It’s unclear what happened to the woman, who was not named ( but the bottom line was the same: Her adoption took place before the period covered by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, and neither she nor her parents ever applied for citizenship for her. So, even though she had lived in the U.S. nearly all her life, had given birth to three children on our nation’s soil, had never as much as visited Korea and didn’t speak the language, federal authorities wanted to send her “back.”

There are more examples, too, dating back at least 15 years; indeed, in my book Adoption Nation, I write about a young man who was adopted into the U.S. as a child, convicted of car theft and credit card fraud, and deported at age 25 to Thailand, where (same story) he knew no one and didn’t speak the native tongue. Can you imagine anything comparable happening to someone born into his or her family, whatever the offense? Of course not.

People who break the law should unequivocally pay an appropriate price for their offenses. But I think it can fairly be argued that the reason some are being ejected from the only country they’ve ever known is not because of the crime they’ve committed – but because they were adopted.

This feels grievously wrong. We should be shocked, we should be outraged, and we should do whatever is necessary to halt the cases already in progress and to prevent this from ever happening again.

6 thoughts on “An Unnerving Reality: We’re Deporting Adoptees

  1. Linda

    “But I think it can fairly be argued that the reason some are being ejected from the only country they’ve ever known is not because of the crime they’ve committed – but because they were adopted.

    This feels grievously wrong. We should be shocked, we should be outraged, and we should do whatever is necessary to halt the cases already in progress and to prevent this from ever happening again.”

    Right. And thousands upon thousands of adult American born adoptees cannot leave the country, because they are not able to obtain a passport. All because of the crime they have not committed- they were adopted, and the state sealed their obc.

  2. Korean Focus

    Thank you for addressing this egregious failure of adoption practice, adoptive parents and immigration law to protect the legal status of intercountry adoptees. I hope the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute can continue to raise this issue publicly and in its lobbying. Adoptee deportations must end, period.

    Adoptive parents and adoption agencies: please take steps to obtain and confirm citizenship for children adopted from outside the U.S. as appropriate for their entry visa. The USCIS website has clear guidelines, which every adoptive parent and adoption agency should understand and follow:

    (Sorry no links allowed)

    Our organization hears from adoptive parents seeking ways to avoid having to follow through on the necessary applications, which is terrifying. We are therefore taking every opportunity to remind adoptive parents that it is their responsibility above all to obtain proof of citizenship for your children. Thank you for allowing me to make that point here.

    Margie Perscheid
    Korean Focus

  3. Abigail

    If we could ever get a government that works it would be short work to amend the 2000 law to include all international adoptions. This is a government shortfall and since many who have been adopted may be in same race families and have no idea that they were adopted I think the state and federal governments need to take responsibility for this gaping hole in adoption policy. There needs to be a search of all adopted persons, like an auto recall, to notify them that they need to apply for US citizenship. It should be a fast track program wherein, if the adoptee does not have access to adoption paperwork, the state makes adoption paperwork available to those individuals who do not have access to their paperwork because they were never told, or never had the papers made available to them by their adoptive parents or the foster care system. Secrecy in adoption causes more problems than it solves.

  4. Gaye Tannenbaum

    In addition to these heartbreaking stories, there are many more international adoptees who are not US citizens but have not been in any legal trouble. They may not face deportation but they aren’t citizens either.

    Is there any government program to expedite their citizenship?

  5. Jane Jeong Trenka

    Mr Pertman, thank you for your attention to this issue. Please join Korean Focus, Land of Gazillion Adoptees, and other stateside organizations working to raise awareness to ultimately amend the Child Citizenship Act. It would be great to have the weight of the EBDAI behind the effort.

    I have met several adopted deportees (there are almost 10 living in Korea, to my knowledge) and other adoptees whose parents did not get them citizenship, so they had to get it themselves as adults. This is not an abstraction, but the reality sitting at our dinner table. Some deportees have severe medical issues. This puts not only the individual adoptee, but also the adoptee community in Korea in crisis. Please help. SOS!

  6. Dana

    It’s bad enough that adoption is the practice of state-sanctioned falsification of birth certificates to play up the notion that adoption is “as if born to.” But on top of that, even the state responsible for said falsification is not buying into its own lie when buying in is not convenient.

    I don’t think we should be falsifying birth certificates in the first place. Other countries do things like issuing an adoption certificate instead, which is what we should be doing. But an adoption proceeding should be considered a naturalization process under immigration law, full stop, no exceptions. I’m gobsmacked that that has never been the case.

    You wonder why people bother adopting in the United States when it’s so obvious adoptees are considered “lesser than.” Why deliberately do that to a child? Foster care exists as an alternative, and at least the kids better know where they stand legally.


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