Opinion | Adoptees Shouldn’t Have to Live in Fear of Being Deported

When Antonio LeBlanc, the luckless protagonist of the new film “Blue Bayou,” is arrested after fighting with two police officers, he discovers a terrible reality: A cop enters LeBlanc’s name in a computer and discovers that he is not a U.S. citizen, as he’d assumed all his 30-something years. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ordered him to be deported.

The character of LeBlanc, played by Justin Chon, who also wrote and directed the film, was born in South Korea, adopted by a Louisiana couple at the age of 3 and raised, and abused, in subsequent foster homes. (Until recently, South Korea was the top sending country for transnational adoptions.) LeBlanc is married to a U.S. citizen, a hospital aide named Kathy who is played by Alicia Vikander. Their two daughters are U.S. citizens, too. Never did he think to question his immigration status — he wasn’t really an immigrant, after all.

Among the many cruelties of our immigration system is this: Transnational adoptees, whose stories begin with a rupture from their birth families and home countries, have often found themselves deprived of U.S. citizenship and at risk of deportation.

The Adoptee Rights Campaign estimates that between 1945 and 2018, U.S. families adopted some 500,000 children from abroad. According to Eleana Kim and Kim Park Nelson, the rules governing many of these adoptees’ citizenship (determined by immigration law) versus their kinship (governed by family law) have remained at odds. Children could enter the United States on virtually any visa and become officially adopted yet remain noncitizens; it was incumbent on their parents to successfully apply for adjustment of status before they turned 18. Only later — often decades later, after trying to vote or applying for student financial aid or getting arrested — would an adoptee learn that he or she had an expired visa or green card.

The risk of deportation for all noncitizens was heightened by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which injected the era’s tough-on-crime logic into immigration enforcement. Even civil violations or misdemeanors can be the basis for sending immigrants to a country they’ve never known. (Photos of seven adoptees who have been deported or are facing deportation appear at the end of “Blue Bayou”; many other adoptees are unhappy with the film and have accused Mr. Chon of unfairly appropriating the story of Adam Crapser, who was deported to Korea in 2016.)

To make “Blue Bayou,” Mr. Chon consulted with several noncitizen adoptees, including Anissa Druesedow, who was deported to Jamaica in 2006 and now lives in Panama. In 2003, while working in retail, Ms. Druesedow allowed someone she knew to return stolen items without receipts. She pleaded guilty and was sent to prison for forgery and theft. There, she was flagged by ICE and learned that she was not a U.S. citizen. Her adoptive parents had applied to adjust her status decades earlier, but because the government had taken six years to approve her green card, she had turned 18 and become ineligible for citizenship. Today, she works in a call center and uses WhatsApp to communicate with her daughter in Salt Lake City; she has a prosthetic leg but lacks health insurance.

In 2000, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act, which granted automatic citizenship to most categories of transnational adoptees. It was nicknamed the Delahunt Bill, after Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, the adoptive father of a daughter born in Vietnam. As Mr. Delahunt told the House, the law would cure “heartbreaking” instances of “forced separation” of parents and children, including those caused by bureaucratic delays, as in Ms. Druesedow’s case. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas co-sponsored that bill, stating, “after an adoption takes place … the child should automatically be considered a citizen.”

But the law applied only to adoptees who were 18 years or younger on Feb. 27, 2001, when it went into effect. This arbitrary cutoff has left as many as 50,000 transnational adoptees like Ms. Druesedow without U.S. citizen status. “Adoption promises us a family, and we should have the same rights as biological children,” she told me by phone last week.

There is a solution. The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021, introduced by Republican Roy Blunt in the Senate and Democrat Adam Smith in the House, would eliminate the exclusions of the 2000 law. It would give transnational adoptees — both those still in the United States and those who have been deported — a chance at naturalization. Since 2015, three other versions of this bill have been introduced in Congress, with bipartisan support and the backing of a wide range of advocacy groups. But it has repeatedly stalled in committee. A representative for Mr. Smith told me that he is actively courting bipartisan support, but as of now there are only four Republican and four Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate.

Today, family separation is endemic to the U.S. immigration system, but it doesn’t have to be. The Biden administration must work with Congress to enact immigration reform — to the benefit of Dreamers, migrant workers, people detained in immigrant prisons and refugees seeking help at the border. The Adoptee Citizenship Act is part of that effort.

“If you believe in adopting adorable children, you should believe in adults having the same rights through adoption,” Ms. Druesedow told me. “I just want to go home.”

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