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Protecting International Adoptees without Citizenship

Imagine you grow up in the United States with your adoptive U.S. citizen parents, and, years later, you find out that you are not a U.S. citizen when you apply for a U.S. passport or register to vote. This has happened to tens of thousands of adoptees. For decades, many adoptive parents and adoptees were unaware that international adoption on its own does not guarantee U.S. citizenship.

Loopholes in the Child Citizenship Act (CCA) of 2000 left thousands of adoptees unprotected without U.S. citizenship. Adoptees without citizenship are unable to enjoy the rights and benefits of being a U.S. citizen. They are also vulnerable to deportation despite their legal adoptions by U.S. citizens.

Until 2000, the U.S. government left it to adoptive parents to secure citizenship for internationally adopted children. However, adoption agencies provided parents with inconsistent and often incomplete instructions on the requirements to naturalize their adopted children. Some parents did not know they needed to do this; others could not afford it or did not understand how to complete the paperwork properly despite endeavoring to do the right thing. Some may have known the requirements but simply did not care enough to follow through.

The CCA, enacted as of February 27, 2001, guaranteed, and continues to provide, automatic citizenship to most international adoptees under the age of 18. However, the law does not protect adoptees who became adults before the CCA took effect in 2001 (anyone born before February 27, 1983) or those brought to the U.S. for adoption on certain types of visas. The law also does not have safeguards in the event the U.S. adoptive parents fail or refuse to complete naturalization processes, thereby placing children in potentially vulnerable situations.

According to the Adoption Rights Campaign (ARC), 25,000 to 49,000 children who were adopted from 1945 to 1998 have entered adulthood without U.S. citizenship and an additional 7,321 to 14,643 children who were adopted from 1999 to 2016 are at risk of reaching adulthood without U.S. citizenship. The number of adopted children living without the protection of U.S. citizenship will increase to 32,000 to 64,000 between 2015 and 2033.

All adoptees without citizenship live in fear and uncertainty. Although some have obtained permanent residency in the U.S. through their own efforts or regained their legal status in their birth countries, most adult adoptees have no viable path to U.S. citizenship. Many are stateless, undocumented, and subject to incarceration and deportation at any time. Some have been torn away from the lives they have built in the U.S. and deported to their birth countries where they are unfamiliar with the language and the culture.

Adult adoptees without citizenship are members of our communities, and they have lived in this country since they were children. They were raised by U.S. citizen parents and many now have families and children of their own. They have contributed to this country. They are Americans in every way except their citizenship status.

As educators, we believe that no person should be penalized for decisions they were not legally permitted to make as children or for mistakes made by their adoptive parents. Instead, they should be granted legal residency status and be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. Congress must continue its efforts to pass legislation to ensure fundamental protections for all adopted children and provide a pathway to citizenship for adult adoptees without U.S. citizenship.


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