This article is the ninth in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children it had sent away via adoption would return as adults with questions demanding to be answered. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace the dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity.
By Dr. Kyung-eun Lee
The scale and persistence with which Korea has historically exported its children remain unmatched by any other country in the world to this day. Over nearly seven decades, this country has sent away over 200,000 children. One major means that enabled such a large-scale phenomenon was the use of “proxy adoption.”
“Proxy” is a general term that refers to the authority a person can grant to another party to execute legal activities on his or her behalf. While such a delegation of power serves a valuable function, its use should not be so limitless that it extends to the adoption of children. Instead, adoption must constitute careful legal processes that establish ties between the adoptive parents and the child, while protecting the best interests of that child. However, proxy adoptions have historically undermined such interests and violated children’s rights.
When transnational adoption first emerged after World War II, American military personnel began returning to the U.S. with war orphans they had adopted while stationed in Europe. To leave with the child, the prospective adoptive parent first filed for and completed the adoption according to the court and legislation of that child’s country. Once in the U.S., the parents then re-adopted the child according to the relevant state court. As the U.S. military withdrew from Europe, this movement of European children to the U.S. decreased.
The second wave of child migration emerged after the Korean War in 1953. At that time, Harry Holt devised a novel means of quickly transferring Korean children to American families. He referred to this method as “proxy adoption,” and argued that Americans willing to accept Korean orphans lacked the time and resources to visit Korea for adoption. Therefore, he acted as their proxy to bring those children to the U.S.
U.S. legislation in the 1950s, specifically the Refugee Relief Act, temporarily granted the immigration of Korean War (1950-53) orphans via proxy adoption. While representing an unprecedented measure to facilitate adoption for U.S. citizens, it also created a serious loophole that threatened the safety of children. This danger did not escape the attention of U.S. social welfare professionals, who criticized Holt’s adoption practices as unprofessional and reckless. With the removal of the term “proxy adoption” from U.S. law, many scholars assumed that the practice had ceased.
On the contrary, proxy adoptions were embedded and further reinforced by Korean law. Rather than serving as a temporary emergency measure to rescue war orphans, this practice became a permanent and recognized means of transferring Korean children overseas for adoption. In 1961, Korea enacted a new law to establish a specialized procedure for orphan adoption. One of the provisions provided that foreign nationals who sought to adopt Korean orphans could employ an agency to act as a representative for the adoption procedure in Korea. Since South Korean law did not prescribe any judicial or public procedure for child adoption, the first time foreign national adoptive parents met their child was at the local airport in the receiving country.
The proxy adoptions performed by specialized agencies, which had been contracted out in Korea and in the receiving countries, benefitted both the adoptive parents abroad and the agencies. This arrangement allowed adoptive parents to avoid lengthy trips to Korea while dealing with only a few intermediaries that could handle all aspects of the adoption. These agencies did everything from locating a baby for adoption to handling the emigration and immigration procedures of both countries, to dealing with state court processes. As transnational adoption remained outside of Korea’s public child welfare system and operated as a private business, agencies wielded immense control, which enabled them to process such a large number of children for adoption.
In the case of adoptions to the United States, the practice of proxy adoptions connects directly with the IR-4 visa of U.S. immigration law. Since a proxy adoption does not require adoptive parents to visit the state of origin, the child crosses national borders without having established family ties with the adoptive parents. The IR-4 visa stops short of granting citizenship and only guarantees the child’s entry into the U.S., his or her custody by the prospective adoptive parents, and permanent resident status. In other words, the IR-4 visa process means that the actual adoption procedure begins after the child arrives in the U.S. Once the child has become a member of the American family by the relevant state court’s decree, then that child may proceed to the naturalization process for U.S. citizenship. Whether these procedures are in actuality completed has relied entirely on the ‘goodwill’ of adoptive parents, rather than on any duty imposed by a public authority.
Until 2012, nearly all Korean children were adopted to the U.S. through the IR-4 visa program, and thus, the acquisition of citizenship for more than 18,000 adoptees cannot be verified. While this situation does not mean they all lack citizenship, it does represent the vulnerability that adoptees have been exposed to through unethical practices. Adoptees’ vulnerability is evident in the cases of adoptees deported from the U.S. While some of them had their adoptions finalized, and for whatever reasons, never acquired nationality, others never had their adoption completed, let alone gained citizenship.
The 2000 Child Citizenship Act (CCA) in the U.S. has been touted as a solution that grants automatic citizenship to transnationally adopted Americans. However, it does not apply to those who were over the age of 18 on Feb. 27, 2001, and consequently, falls short of helping those adopted during the ’70s and early ’80s, which accounts for the majority of Korean adoptees.
The CCA also stipulates that family ties between the parents and the child must be established before the child enters the U.S. Before the introduction of court adoption orders in Korea in 2012, satisfying this requirement hadn’t been possible for Korean children, which is why Korean children received the IR-4 visa. To remedy the age limit of the CCA, a new bill, the Adoption Citizenship Act (ACA), is being pursued in the U.S. Congress. However, even if the ACA can amend any loopholes related to age limits, the inherent flaw and legacy of the IR-4 visa program remain unresolved.
Lee Kyung-eun is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”
Originally published in The Korea Times.