75,000 Adopted Kids Become U.S. Citizens

Four-year-old Emily Maness has spent nearly all her life with her adoptive family in Massachusetts. But in the eyes of the U.S. government, she's still a South Korean.

Her parents, Donna and Andrew Maness, brought her home from the town of Kyungsangbuk-Do in 1997, then waited a year for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to schedule an interview for citizenship. The couple from Falmouth canceled the interview because of a family funeral, then completed paperwork to reschedule.

But another year has passed and they've had no response.

Now they won't need an answer. That's because Emily and younger brother Jack are among an estimated 75,000 adopted children across the country who will become citizens simply by waking up.

The Child Citizenship Act, passed by Congress last year, grants automatic citizenship to most adopted children born abroad, provided they are under 18 and at least one parent or legal guardian is a U.S. citizen. There are about 20,000 such adoptions every year and the average wait for INS citizenship processing has been two years.

The new law removes a bureaucratic and psychological hurdle for parents who may well have waited years and paid up to $25,000 for international adoptions.

"It's the best thing that could have happened to people in our position," Mrs. Maness said. "The whole adoption process is filled with obstacles. We justify ourselves over and over again. We get FBI checks, state and local checks. We reveal everything about ourselves to government agencies."

And that's before the INS application, which seeks similar paperwork on parents and kids, including birth and marriage certificates, photo identifications, alien registration cards and certified English translations of documents written in other languages.

A Personal Interest

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., wrote the new law from experience. He has an adopted daughter, Kara, 26, who became a citizen several years after leaving Vietnam as a baby.

"Most people are totally unaware that a child adopted from overseas does not become a citizen automatically," Delahunt said. "Many of my colleagues were surprised to learn that this wasn't the case already."

He will celebrate today with a ceremony at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall. Senators who helped pass the law, among them Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plan to join him and dozens of adoptive families, including the Manesses. Smaller events are planned elsewhere in the country.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Don and Belinda Siperko plan to throw a party for their four adopted children from Russia, ranging in age from 3 to 10. Andre, the oldest, has a basic understanding of what is happening, but won't fully appreciate it until he's older, Don Siperko said.

"Right now, it's something for my wife and me," Siperko said.

The selection of Faneuil Hall for the celebration in Boston is no coincidence; it's where Delahunt's daughter became a citizen in 1980.

"For some," Delahunt said, "it's probably difficult to understand the significance and meaning on a human level of your child becoming a U.S. citizen. Our children are as American as anyone else and contribute to this country significantly. It's a day of real joy for a lot of people."

Making Adoption Easier

The estimate of affected children — 75,000 — is conservative, Delahunt's office says. Not included are the tens of thousands of children born to U.S. citizens living abroad, who also automatically receive citizenship under the law.

Delahunt and others say numbers don't tell the whole story.

"It means we as a country are fundamentally changing the way we view these people and how we view ourselves," said Adam Pertman, author of the book "Adoption Nation" and father of two adopted children.

Delahunt said the citizenship bill generated more e-mails and letters from citizens than any other he's been involved with during his 30 years in office.

"This is as much about promoting adoption as it is reducing barriers," he said. "There are children everywhere, home and abroad, in need of a family."