written by Sam Wojnilower
As International Program Coordinator for Adoptions From The Heart, almost every month I receive phone calls from parents who previously adopted children from abroad. These parents are calling the agency to inquire about their children’s documents, citizenship, and other legal issues. Most often, the resolution of any concerns is fairly straightforward. Occasionally however, things are more complicated, and will be more difficult to try to resolve. I recently came across an article about a woman in Washington State. She was adopted as an infant from Mexico by an American couple. But, her United States citizenship was never established. The woman is now an adult, and was arrested in 2009 for stealing a purse containing prescription pills. Her arrest led to a conviction, for which she served a three months prison sentence. However, because she is not a U.S. citizen, she was then transferred to a federal detention center. Then, in December of 2010 a federal immigration judge ordered her deportation to Mexico. So, because the proper steps were never taken to provide for her legal protection, this woman has remained incarcerated for more than one year following completion of her sentence, and now faces being deported to a country in which she has no support system, familial or otherwise, and in which she is presently unable to speak the native language.
The Washington woman’s case is surely an exceptional one. For most of those reading this article, it is likely that all necessary steps have already occurred to provide for the legal protection of their internationally adopted children. Nonetheless, I thought to take the opportunity to review some items of which adoptive parents of children from abroad should be aware.
Nearly all of AFTH’s international adoption clients brought their children into the U.S. on either an IR-3 Visa or an IR-4 Visa. (The Visa can be found inside adopted children’s foreign passports.):
IR-3 Visas indicate that an adoption abroad was considered “full and final.” Under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, children who entered the U.S. on an IR-3 Visa generally (with a few exceptions) qualify automatically for U.S. citizenship. Such a Visa is issued in cases in which the adopting American parents visited in person with the child prior to their legal adoption of the child in the foreign country. As examples, because countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan require for adopting parents to visit with a child prior to adopting him/her, children adopted from these countries enter the U.S. on IR-3 Visas. This also holds true for children adopted from China, with the exception of cases of married couples in which only 1 spouse traveled to China to meet the child prior to the adoption.
For children that came to the U.S. on an IR-3 Visa in 2004 or later, U.S. Certificates of Citizenship were automatically mailed to families by USCIS. For children who entered the U.S. on an IR-3 Visa prior to 2004, families needed to file Form N-600 with USCIS to apply for a child’s U.S. Certificate of Citizenship. For any families that have not already done so (and that adopted children from abroad in 2003 or earlier), this form can be found at www.uscis.gov.
For children that came to the U.S on an IR-3 Visa, doing an adoption proceeding (ie. “Re-Adoption”) in the U.S. is usually not legally required. However, Re-Adoption is recommended in order to provide the fullest legal protection for children. And, it is further recommended to allow for the issuance of a replicable, U.S. issued adoption decree. I have received phone calls over the years from adoptive parents reporting that their foreign adoption decree has been lost or damaged, and it may not be possible to get another decree from the foreign country. But, if a U.S. issued adoption decree is ever lost or damaged, then a family can always apply for a new copy of it to the court that issued the decree.
IR-4 Visas indicate that a foreign adoption decree is not considered full and final in the U.S. Such a Visa is issued in cases in which the adopting parents did not visit in person with the child prior to their legal adoption of the child in the foreign country. (In the case of married couples, an IR-4 Visa would have been issued if only one spouse traveled to the foreign country to meet the child prior to its adoption.) Examples of countries in which IR-4 Visas may have been issued are Guatemala, India, and Vietnam, as these are countries in which adoption proceedings sometimes occurred in the foreign country prior to the child having been visited by the adopting parents.
For cases in which children entered the U.S. on an IR-4 Visa, adopting families are required to have an adoption hearing in the U.S. in order to finalize the adoption. Until such a hearing is done, adoptions are not recognized as full and final in the U.S., nor are impacted children eligible for U.S. citizenship.
After having such an adoption hearing, families should then file Form N-600 with USCIS to apply for children’s U.S. Certificate of Citizenship.
U.S. Passports – There are two documents that can serve as evidence of an internationally adopted child’s U.S. citizenship. One is the U.S. Certificate of Citizenship, and the other is a U.S. passport. For children that entered the U.S. on IR-3 Visas, families can apply for such children’s U.S. passports at any time after the children’s arrival to the U.S. For children that entered the U.S. on IR-4 Visas, families can apply for U.S. passports only after the adoption has been finalized in court in the U.S.
Social Security - Families can apply for adopted children’s Social Security cards after the children arrive in the U.S. However, if evidence of U.S. citizenship (in the form of a U.S. Certificate of Citizenship and/or U.S. passport) is not shown to the Social Security Administration (SSA), internationally adopted children will be classified as “Permanent Legal Residents” by SSA. If a Social Security card is issued with the child classified as a Permanent Legal Resident, the family should later return to the Social Security Office after it has obtained evidence of the child’s U.S. citizenship. Presenting such evidence to the SSA will enable it to change the child’s status to “Citizen.”
State-Issued Birth Certificates – Following similar reasoning as above regarding attaining a U.S. issued adoption decree, it is also recommended that all adoptive parents apply within their home municipality for a state-issued birth certificate for their internationally adopted children. This document may be easier to use for registering children for school and other activities than might be a foreign birth certificate, and it is a document that can be replaced should it ever be lost or damaged.
USCIS Form G-884 – After receiving an adopted child’s U.S. Certificate of Citizenship, adoptive parents can file Form G-884 to request for USCIS to return original adoption documents it still has on file for the adoption case. Remember when you came through Customs as you arrived in the U.S. with your child? You were carrying a sealed envelope, had been told not to open the envelope, and then gave the envelope to an immigration official. Well, you can apply to have some contents of this packet returned to you. Form G-884 can be found at www.uscis.gov. (Be aware, however, that if you choose to file this form with USCIS, processing time can be one year.)
For all parents of children adopted from abroad, it is important that steps be taken to provide children with all available legal protections. This holds especially true for cases in which children arrived in the U.S. on IR-4 Visas. Please contact your agency if you have any questions regarding your particular case.
Sam Wojnilower is the very proud father of three children by adoption. He and his wife adopted twin girls in Ukraine in 2001, and a son from Russia in 2003. Sam is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has worked for the past fifteen years in the field of Child Welfare. He has worked in both supervisory and direct practice capacities in areas including Residential Treatment, Outpatient Mental Health Services, Foster Care, and Juvenile Justice. Following the adoption of his son, Sam entered the field of Adoption on a professional basis. He has been employed by Adoptions From The Heart since 2004, and presently holds the titles of Coordinator of International Programs, Cooperative Program Manager, and Adoption Social Worker. This article was reprinted with permission from Adoptions From the Heart adoption agency.