Working with International Adoptees & Citizenship

I’m a transnational adoptee from the Philippines. In 1993, when I was seven years old, my parents and I tried to travel to England for a family reunion. Unfortunately, this flagged immigration and after visiting the US Embassy, the Philippine Embassy, and the British Embassy, we learned I was not a US citizen. In fact, I was stateless and at risk of deportation. Luckily, because my dad is British, the embassy gave me a visa. We were able to go to our family reunion; however, I had to stay and live with my Aunt, Uncle and two cousins until my citizenship was taken care of. I finished second grade at Long Whittingham Primary School.

Though the deportation itself was traumatic (I threw up in the US Embassy), my time in England was fun and reflexive. I imagined I was Mary Lennox and spent my time writing in my Aunt’s garden. As I got older, I became aware of the fact my situation was not unique. Many adoptees find out that they are not citizens when they fill out the free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), apply for college, join the military, apply for a passport or commit a minor crime. Approximately, 89,000 people were adopted “between 1953 (the earliest federal record) and 1982. None of these people received automatic citizenship” (“National Council for Adoption,” 2019).

Unlike me, who was somewhat protected, the international adoptees I read about ended up back in their birth countries where they did not know anyone, did not speak the language, and did not understand the culture. Many committed suicide. This is unacceptable to me, and so I want to bring their stories to light in a way that is healing, respectful and ethical.

I am working on a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. My passion is connecting people to their origin stories, regardless of how much they know about their birth stories. This involves writing one’s own ethnoautobiography, which is defined as “a visionary and imaginative process that grounds itself in time (smaller and larger planetary and celestial cycles), place (ecology, history of place), history (stories and myths), ancestry, and stories of origin and creation” (Kremer & Jackson-Paton, 79). The word I want to hone is on is “place.” In an interview in “Edge Effects,” Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer states,

“Gary Nabhan has said, as we try to heal the earth with restoration, with ecological restoration, that’s well and good but what we really need to do is re-story-ation. We need to tell ourselves a different story about our relationship to place. That’s where I think creation stories, either from antiquity or the creation stories we are in the process of writing today about our relationship to place, really matter. They can become a compass for us.”

Origin stories have the capability of connecting people to their communities and developing a sense of belonging, a feeling that international adoptees yearn for. Not only would this be a chance for them to voice what citizenship means to them and what it means to belong to a place, it would also raise awareness among the general public, legislators and policymakers. Perhaps it would help them see that adult international adoptees without citizenship is a real issue affecting real people. Perhaps it would create a sense of urgency.

The attempt to pass the Adult Citizenship Act, which would grant retroactive citizenship to adult adoptees, is an unbelievably slow process. We have been trying to pass it since 2015. It effectively closes the loophole created by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which protected children from being deported. It gave automatic citizenship to all those adopted after 2001 and gave retroactive citizenship to those under 18 years old. Glaringly obvious, transnational adoptees 18 years and older were not included. Granting international adoptees citizenship is not only a right, but shows that they do indeed belong to a place.

Furthermore, telling these stories is worth doing because having a community is the key to overall health and well-being. As human beings, we are wired for connection. UCLA professor Dr. Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, writes, “Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neo-cortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives” (Lieberman, 11). It is important to note that international adoptees without citizenship who have been deported are in every sense American. They grew up in the US, went to school here, were raised by US citizens, and have friends and family who are also US citizens. They are culturally and unequivocally American. Granting these adoptees citizenship is just the tip of the iceberg.