Growing up American, only to learn you’re not

Adoptee from South Korea potentially deportable to a country he doesn't remember

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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.

The employer asked for proof of citizenship, and Ki Hong’s Social Security number and driver’s license, which had worked when applying for college financial aid, were suddenly insufficient. He soon learned that his American parents had never filled out the paperwork to naturalize him after bringing him to the United States in 1985.

Now it was too late. Not only that, but Ki Hong is potentially deportable — to a country he doesn’t remember. “I kind of got into a panic,” Ki Hong, 33, said of the discovery.

Today, children who are adopted from abroad by U.S. citizens generally receive automatic citizenship, and adoption agencies and embassies are better at informing parents about any follow-up they need to do. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 awarded citizenship retroactively to what advocates estimated were more than 100,000 international adoptees younger than 18 who were already in the country when it went into effect in February 2001.

But Ki Hong was not covered by the law because he already was 18 at the time. He is among an estimated tens of thousands of people who were adopted internationally by American parents between the 1950s and 1980s but never naturalized.

For them, life has become a surreal identity crisis. They look and talk like Americans, but they are not technically Americans, though this is the only country they know.

“We’re really stateless,” Ki Hong said. “I feel like I deserve to be in this country.”

In recent years, adoptees in similar circumstances have begun to find one another and are uniting behind the Adoptee Citizenship Act, proposed federal legislation that would grant citizenship to anyone who was adopted by a U.S. citizen regardless of when they turned 18. It would also allow those who have been deported to return to the United States.

“These adoptees grow up in American families, go to American schools and lead American lives,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, who sponsored the act. “This constant threat to the life they know is unjust. . . . We need to ensure international adoptees are recognized as the Americans they are.” Bills were introduced last year in the Senate and this year in the House and are awaiting votes.

While most adoptees received legal permanent residency when they arrived, those who thought they had become citizens were unaware that they had to renew the permits. Now, many have trouble finding employment, worry about losing their jobs and fear they will be unable to collect Social Security benefits they have paid into. And they live in terror that a wrong move will get them kicked out of the country.

If the legislation passes, “I think it’s going to fill a very deep void and hole that I’ve had about who I am,” Ki Hong said.

Widespread adoption of children abroad by U.S. citizens began in South Korea in the 1950s after the Korean War and then spread to other countries. It was initially less regulated than now. “The U.S. federal government and state government did not keep adequate track of numbers,” said Kevin Vollmers, a South Korean adoptee who founded the adoptee advocacy organization LGA.

Based on estimates by the South Korean government about U.S. adoptees whose status remains unknown, advocates estimate there could be up to 18,000 from South Korea in this situation, along with an undetermined number from countries such as Venezuela, Germany, India, Guatemala, Vietnam and Iran.

Growing up, they were able to obtain Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses. Before the 1990s and early 2000s ushered in a stricter era of screening, many even received U.S. passports, served in the U.S. military and voted — unaware that they were not citizens.

“Then when they went to renew (a document), the paperwork they were using up to then are suddenly not enough,” said Emily Kessel, advocacy director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.

Often, families did not understand the implications of dropping the ball on the paperwork.

“There wasn’t a lot of education to adoptive parents in the earlier time about naturalizing their children or even what papers to keep, said Kessel, whose organization is helping push for bills in the House and Senate.

Some have been able to pursue a typical immigrant path.

Joy Alessi, 50, of Houston learned of her status when she was 25 and attempted to get a passport for a vacation to Mexico. Her legal residency was still valid, so she continued to renew it and got a South Korean passport for travel abroad. But not having U.S. citizenship has limited her.

“Applying for jobs, that was difficult,” Alessi said. “I basically carried my adoption papers and relied on people’s leniency. . . . I kind of learned not to apply for jobs that had thorough background checks.”

Being convicted of a crime, no matter how minor, can raise the stakes exponentially. Around three dozen adoptees — including one who served in the U.S. military — have been deported or are at risk of being deported after criminal convictions; one was later killed in Brazil, his country of birth.

South Korean-born Monte Haines holds little hope for returning to the United States if the act doesn’t pass. Adopted by an American family in 1981 when he was around 10, he says his family assumed that adopting him automatically made him a U.S. citizen.

In the 1990s, he enlisted in the Army and served in Kuwait; then in 2001, he was arrested on a drug charge. While he was in a Texas county jail awaiting trial, immigration officials told him he had never been a U.S. citizen.

“I was, like, shocked,” said Haines, 44. “I kept on arguing, saying, ‘Yes I am; I was adopted.’ ”

But after serving a prison sentence, he was deported to South Korea, where he did not speak the language. “The first week, I was living on the street underneath a bridge.”

He now works for a dollar store in Seoul, unable to return to the United States even on a South Korean passport.

“I’m banned for life – that’s what the judge said,” he said. “I have my family there, my friends, I went to school, I went to college. What more American can you get?”

Many unnaturalized adoptees try to stay under the radar, telling few people about their situations, avoiding international travel and keeping away from the polls on Election Day.

One woman adopted from Iran in the early 1970s did not learn of her status until 2008, when she applied for a passport. The Social Security Administration had her on record as a citizen, and until learning her status, she used to vote and get called to jury duty.

She met with an array of immigration attorneys; one suggested she marry an American to help solve the problem, and another scared her so much about deportation that she balked at applying for legal residency. She learned her father had begun – but never finished – the process of getting her naturalized; he died before she could ask him about it.

“As a child, my mom was always, like, ‘Oh, you have citizenship because we’re citizens,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared her employer would think she lied on the job application she filled out before knowing her status.

Now 46 and living in California, she is terrified of losing her job.

“And with all the Trump stuff about immigration, I’m even more scared,” she said. “The attitude is, like, ‘Why didn’t you do the paperwork?’ People forget, we’re these small little kids who came into the country.”