In 2000, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act, which streamlined the citizenship process for children under the age of 18 born outside the U.S. but adopted by U.S. citizens. The legislation rightly conferred automatic citizenship upon these minors moving forward and offered retroactive citizenship to about 100,000 international adoptees. However, the citizenship provisions applied only to children who were under 18 when the law passed, excluding about 35,000 legal adoptees who were older than 18 and had never been naturalized.
Because of this oversight, nearly all of these individuals still do not have citizenship in the United States. In many cases, their U.S. citizen parents reasonably concluded that the child had received U.S. citizenship and therefore never filed any naturalization paperwork, unaware that they needed to do so. This loophole and the confusion it created have left these individuals in limbo nearly two decades later.
Now, a fix could be on the horizon. In 2019, the bipartisan Adoptee Citizenship Act was introduced in the House by Reps. Rob Woodall (R-GA) and Adam Smith (D-WA); a bipartisan group of four senators later introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
The bill fixes the issue by conferring citizenship to those adopted by U.S. citizen parents regardless of the age of the adoptee. To qualify for citizenship, adoptees left out in the past must still reside in the United States.
This common-sense bill corrects the inadvertent exclusion of 35,000 should-be American citizens. These adoptees, who have otherwise become wholly integrated into American society, still lack full citizenship rights in the United States, despite having been adopted in the 1960s in some cases.
Because they never naturalized, these individuals cannot access the full benefits of a U.S. citizen, including employment, voting rights, and travel. Moreover, their lack of status leaves them at risk of deportation.
The Washington Post reported in 2016 that around three dozen adoptees — including one who served in the U.S. military — were deported or were at risk of deportation because of criminal convictions and their lack of citizenship.
U.S. citizen parents legally adopted these individuals at a young age, and for all intents and purposes, raised their children just like an average American child. This year, NBC reported on Joy Kim-Alessi, who was adopted at seven months old and raised in California. She didn’t know she wasn’t an American citizen until she tried to get a passport at age 25. She equated that devastating news to the trauma of a car crash.
The Post described another story: “At basketball games at his Oregon high school, Justin Ki Hong, an adoptee from South Korea, remembers putting his hand over his heart and singing the national anthem, proud to be a citizen of the United States. It wasn’t until he applied for a job years later that Ki Hong learned he had never been a citizen at all.”
In April, 29 organizations, including the Niskanen Center, sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee encouraging Congress to take action on the bill. The letter included signatures from the leadership of various religious, adoptee-rights, and legal organizations across the political spectrum. The National Council for Adoption, the Adoptee Rights Campaign, the Center for Adoption Policy, the Family Coalition for Adoptee Citizenship, and several other adoption groups also expressed support for the bill.
In passing the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, the U.S. took demonstrable steps to protect the rights of children who were adopted by U.S. citizen parents. The bill helped facilitate international adoption by reducing barriers and slashing bureaucracy that made the citizenship process lengthy and costly. The age cutoff undermines these efforts by failing to deliver on the special promise of U.S. citizenship.
Last November, during National Adoption Month, Smith and Woodall wrote, “We must come together to defeat the fallacy that adoptive children are any different from biological children. This injustice transcends party affiliation and is a problem that cannot wait.”
The Adoptee Citizenship Act is the next logical step in streamlining our valuable adoption system by ending a decades-long loophole that kept some adoptees as less than full citizens. These international adoptees deserve peace of mind and a resolution to the technicality that starved them of their citizenship for decades.
The authors would like to thank Alex Miller for research and writing assistance.