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Opinion: All children adopted from other countries should be U.S. citizens

Many adoptees have been shocked to learn decades later that their parents or legal guardians did not complete the naturalization process

Haitian orphans, whose orphanage was destroyed by an earthquake, are shown arriving in Pittsburgh in 2010.
Haitian orphans, whose orphanage was destroyed by an earthquake, are shown arriving in Pittsburgh in 2010. The orphans were being prepared for adoption into American families. Because of a technicality in the law, any such child born before Feb. 27, 1983, did not automatically become a U.S. citizen.
Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

With the holiday season upon us, our thoughts turn to our families. Utah has a long and wonderful history of valuing family. Adoption has been one way that many Utah parents have chosen to form or expand their families. The idea is well-established that adopted children should be legally, religiously and emotionally treated the same as biological children.

It is common for children adopted to Latter-day Saint families to be sealed to their parents in the faith’s temples. Yet, many are shocked to learn that tens of thousands of international adoptees in the U.S. still do not have citizenship. How did this happen?

Twenty years ago, Congress passed a well-intentioned law called the Childhood Citizenship Act of 2000 that automatically granted U.S. citizenship to all intercountry children adopted by U.S. citizen parents. But the act also contained an unfortunate technical oversight that meant international adoptees born on or before Feb. 27, 1983, would not be automatically granted U.S. citizenship.

Many adoptees in this category have been shocked to learn decades later that their parents or legal guardians did not complete the naturalization process, leaving these adoptees exposed without the protections of U.S. citizenship.

The authors of this editorial are all international adoptees raised in Utah and born before Feb. 27, 1983. Most of our parents completed our naturalization before adulthood. But many adoptive parents naturally and mistakenly assumed that their child would be automatically granted U.S. citizenship when they were legally adopted, and do not complete the steps for naturalization.

Anissa Druesedow was born in Jamaica and adopted as a teenager by U.S. citizens while living in Panama. In 2006, at age 36, she was deported from New York to Jamaica, and currently lives in Panama. Lacking resources to support her daughter Vanessa in Panama, Druesedow was grateful for Latter-day Saint friends who helped Vanessa move and resettle in Kaysville.

Vanessa completed her GED, graduated from what is now Ensign College and settled in Salt Lake City, where she has lived for the past 11 years. The family separation for Anissa and Vanessa is acute. Vanessa sees her mother only every few years as international travel is so costly.

International adoptees, brought to the U.S. as children and adopted by U.S. families, should never have to experience family separation and exile to a country they have little to no memory of or connection to because their parents failed to legalize them as U.S. citizens. (To learn more, watch this short 3.5 minute video sharing Anissa’s story.)

More than 50 international adoptees across the nation have been deported to their countries of origin since the Childhood Citizenship Act was enacted. All of these children were brought to the U.S. with the promise of finding a permanent, loving home, and had every expectation that their citizenship matched that of their adoptive parents.

While international adoption may seem rare, more than 410,000 children were adopted from 28 countries into the U.S. between 1953 and 2016. Thousands of children have been internationally adopted in Utah over the decades. It is estimated that more than 18,000 South Korean adoptees alone fall into this legislative technical oversight.

Every aspect of a fulfilling life that we take for granted is made drastically more difficult for adoptees without U.S. citizenship: voting, running for public office, applying for college, serving in the military, applying for a passport or driver’s license, securing a job, access to banking, applying for loans, owning a home, obtaining Social Security benefits and medical care, and legal justice.

This oversight in the law creates an unfair disparity between internationally adopted children and biologically born children.

Shelly Johnson, an executive vice president at Zions Bank, said, “A child who is internationally adopted should be equipped with the same economic empowerment as a biological child, and U.S. citizenship is a major factor. The current law makes it more difficult for thousands of international adoptees to access economic opportunity. ”

The Alliance for Adoptee Citizenship and advocates across the country have introduced the Adoptee Citizenship Act (HR1593 and SB967) in the 117th U.S. Congress. The proposed act has two main goals:

● Retroactively grant U.S. citizenship to all intercountry adoptees adopted by U.S. citizen parents.

● Restore rights lost by intercountry adoptees who were harmed by this technical oversight, including giving adult adoptees who have already been deported the opportunity to return to the United States and be eligible for U.S. citizenship.

We are pleased that Utah Rep. John Curtis is the lead co-sponsor of the House version of this act. He said, “When I heard about this situation, it was obvious that I needed to sponsor this bill. I’m pleased to see such tremendous bipartisan support for the Adoptee Citizenship Act.”

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, is also a co-sponsor of the bill.

In the 2022 general legislative session, Utah Sen. Jani Iwamoto will propose a concurrent state resolution to support the Adoptee Citizenship Act. She said, “Utah has always prided itself on being a family-friendly and child-friendly state. This technical flaw should have been cured decades ago. International adoptees should never have to worry whether they belong in this country.”

Children are to be loved and cherished. All children who have been adopted by U.S. citizens should be granted U.S. citizenship, regardless of the year of their birth. They should not be punished by the lack of a legal process they had no knowledge of, or control over as innocent children.

We call on all of Utah’s congressional and state government leaders to support passage of the Adoptee Citizenship Act 2021.

Sara Jones is CEO of InclusionPro; Shelly Johnson is an executive vice president at Zions Bank; Jini Roby is a professor emeritus at BYU; and Kari Larson is vice president of the Utah Jazz. All of the authors are Utah residents and international adoptees.