A Day on the Hill – Adoptee Citizenship Act Day of Action


Over the past year, the Adoptee Rights Campaign, adoptees, and their allies have been fighting for the Adoptee Citizenship Act. This legislation would close a loophole in the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which granted citizenship to all international adoptees under the age of 18 at the time of the bill’s passage and all future international adoptees adopted to U.S. parents. Since international adoption to the U.S. had been occurring en masse since the 1950s, several thousands of adoptees were not covered by the Child Citizenship Act.

The Adoptee Citizenship Act would grant retroactive citizenship to adoptees who were not covered under the previous bill. Although the onus of securing citizenship for adoptees was previously on adoptive parents, there was no clear and standardized communication to adoptive parents about the need to naturalize their adopted children. As a result, many did not know that they should naturalize their children. Instead, they assumed that their children would share in their American citizenship. Even for those who did begin the process to naturalize, due to the chaotic and disjointed system, communication between parents and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services was irregular and infrequent. Currently, there are an estimated 35,000 adoptees without citizenship.

On Thursday, December 1, I joined about 20 other adoptees and allies on Capitol Hill to lobby for the Adoptee Citizenship Act. Throughout the day we had briefings with Representatives’ and Senators’ staff and held a press conference featuring two adoptees without citizenship, Joy, adopted from Korea, and Chris, adopted during the Vietnam Baby Lift.

As I listened to Joy and Chris’ stories, I was both saddened and shocked. Saddened because they are both in precarious positions and risk being separated from their families – the families they were adopted into and the families that they have started. Shocked because of the utter disorganization, misinformation, and mixed messages of the U.S. government and adoption agencies. While I understand that it was parents’ responsibility to find out if their children had U.S. citizenship and then to naturalize their child AND I get that adoptees, who are now adults, could pursue naturalization on their own, there is a deep feeling of displacement that I feel as an adoptee when thinking about this very material evidence of our liminality.

Transnational transracial adoptees often share this feeling of being between spaces, places, and people. In the case of adoptees without citizenship, these feelings take a palpable form. It feels as if it is not only our American-ness that is in peril in this very concrete way but also our place in our own families.

By the end of our day on Capitol Hill, I felt proud of the ongoing work that the Adoptee Rights Campaign is doing and that I was able to contribute. Lending my voice to raise awareness of the Adoptee Citizenship Act is part of the responsibility I have as a fellow adoptee. Here’s to continuing to fight for our rights to U.S. citizenship.

Get involved! Visit the Adoptee Rights Campaign for more info!

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Abuse in Adoptive Families

In the U.S., approximately four to seven children die each day as a result of child abuse or neglect. The abuse of children is horrific in any instance but takes on added scrutiny when it is at the hands of adoptive parents. High-profile cases of child abuse by adoptive parents, such as the death of Hana Williams or Madoc O’Callaghan, raise questions of the responsibility of adoption agencies in safeguarding children, particularly the role of in-depth background checks of potential parents.

Child abuse can cause long-term health effects to the victim’s life expectancy, mental health and stability, and physical well-being. These effects may be further compounded among adoptees, who also have the added trauma of separation from their first family and, in the case of transnational adoptees, birth culture. Comprehensive post-adoption services are needed to help adoptees’ process the trauma associated with adoption, however these services are not readily available and are often cost-prohibitive. Similarly, the services needed to address child abuse and neglect are often limited.

While it is unclear if there are differences in the rate of child abuse within adoptive families compared to families overall, it is important to be aware of the signs of child abuse. To learn more about child abuse statistics and how to identify it and intervene for child safety, see:




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Rehoming is the non-legal term referring to the practice of placing an adopted child in another family’s home. This is typically a situation occurring outside of the scope of the law, legal professionals, or child welfare agencies and/or practitioners. High profile cases of rehoming have brought media attention to this practice. For example, in 2015 Arkansas Republican Representative Justin Harris and his wife, Marsha, came under scrutiny for rehoming the two sisters they adopted. One of the girls was repeatedly sexually abused her new ‘father.’ In 2010, Tennessee woman, Torry Hansen, sent her seven year-old adopted son alone on a flight back to Moscow. Her son was then met by a stranger, who she solicited on the internet and paid to take her son to the Russian Education and Science Ministry. The child remains in Russia although he is an American citizen and, under Tennessee law, still considered to be Hansen’s son.

Some statistics estimate that up to 5 percent of adoptions are dissolved, where the parent-child relationship is severed after the adoption is finalized. However, because rehoming occurs outside of the law, accurate statistics on this practice are unknown.

Rehoming is among one of the worst case scenarios for adoption and points to the need for more pre-adoption training for parents and post-adoption services for both parents and children. Parents who have rehomed their children often cite the lack of services or the cost of services as barriers to keeping their children. Additional post-adoption services would help ease the transition of older children and children with special needs, who are among the most frequently rehomed.

For an in-depth investigative series on rehoming, see:


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War Brides, Yellow Fever, and a Korean Adoptee

I remember the day I transitioned from cute Korean adoptee to sexualized Asian American woman. It was the weekend, and like many other families, my father and I were doing our weekly grocery shopping. The checkout line was wrapped around the frozen food aisle. My father and the white military serviceman behind him had struck up a conversation. Then I heard the question to my dad, “Is that your wife?”

I was barely a teenager.

Were my father and I of the same race, I doubt that question would have been asked. Were I of a different race, still not white but not Asian either, again I doubt that question would have been the one asked.

Instead of one of the countless Asian adoptees in the U.S., the questioner lumped me into the category of the countless Asian military brides of U.S. servicemen. Some might try to rationalize this assumption, we were on a military base’s grocery store, the questioner was a military serviceman, and the families all had military ties. But, there was nothing rational about this question.

I was barely a teenager.

A couple decades later this same scenario played out as my father and I joined an afternoon boat ride around the Wisconsin River. We sat on the lower deck near the captain, a white man at the later years of middle age. As the boat left the dock, the captain urged us, “Don’t be shy. You two can cuddle.” I quickly retorted, “I love my father, but not like that!” The captain apologized and then later flirted with me.

Transnational transracial adoption adds children of color to white families with the promise of a family just like any other. In many ways, this form of family-making creates families similar to blood family relations, but in countless others, transnational transracial families face distinct challenges. Adoptees are often seen as adorable children in need yet we do not remain children forever. We have some understanding of what the adoptee child means or looks like but far less understanding about what it means to be an adoptee as an adult. Children by birth simply grow up and continue being daughters or sons, sisters or brothers. Children by adoption grow up and become, or continue to be, outsiders among their family – assumed ‘wives,’ ‘husbands,’ or ‘romantic partners’ at best, sexualized objects prime for the taking at worst.

What happens when the adoptee child grows up?

Do promises of forever family hold true?

Who do adoptees become in the context of family?

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Reflections on World Adoption Day

Yesterday, on World Adoption Day, I had the opportunity to present preliminary findings from my dissertation research, which focuses on Korean adoptees’ identities, advocacy, and relationship to racial ideology. As I worked on and practiced my presentation over the past week, I couldn’t help but think about the conflicting messages about adoption, such as those promoted through National Adoption Month, Orphan Sunday, World Adoption Day, or National Adoption Day, and the very real experiences of adoptees. World Adoption Day, like the other nationally and internationally identified adoption events, celebrates families and raises awareness about adoption. But adoption campaigns do not translate into transformation in understanding about who constitutes family, what transracial adoption entails, or the citizenship rights of transnational adoptees.

In the midst of National Adoption Month, a Korean adoptee awaits deportation. We talk about forever families and yet here is an adoptee being separated from family forever. The country that welcomed him here has decided that it no longer wants him. The cute Korean baby has served its purpose.

On World Adoption Day, I continued to see the limits of family-making through adoption. Ideas of being just like one of the family should mean to be loved like one of the family, to be embraced like one of the family, to be defended like one of the family. But, too often, I see this to mean, in regards to transnational transracial adoptees, to be white like one of the family, and when you don’t uphold white attitudes and white views you are transgressing the conditions on which you were incorporated into the family.

As Korean adoptees share the hurt and pain they feel of being racial outsiders resurfacing with the election of a man who repeatedly demonizes people who look like them, we are continually told to ‘get over it’ or to simply cultivate our own inner peace, to mentally pull ourselves up by our bootstraps while ignoring the very real material and physical consequences unfolding around us. Apparently, ‘like it or not’ we will be treated differently because we aren’t white and we are supposed to sit here and take it, quietly, obediently.

But we can’t.

We won’t.

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Adoptions on Screen

What role does adoption play in television shows and movies? Is adoption simply another element of the character’s background, is it a way to demonstrate the character’s flaws or to garner sympathy, or is it meaningfully integrated into the storyline? Thinking about how adoption is portrayed in popular culture can tell us about our common understandings about adoption – who are adoptees, who adopts, and reasons for adoption.

A good resource for identifying adoption-related movies is the blog Adoption at the Movies.

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Trending: Celebrity Adoptions

Bringing home a baby is often a highly public and celebratory occasion. Bringing home a baby from another country and of another race raises the level of public interest and attention. This especially true among celebrity transnational transracial adoptions. In the 1930s writer Pearl S. Buck adopted several mixed-race children from abroad, eventually establishing her own adoption agency – Welcome House in 1949, the first interracial and international adoption agency.

In 1955, Harry and Bertha Holt, a farming couple from Oregon, were thrust into the national spotlight with their adoption of eight children from Korea. Though not celebrities themselves, their very public adoptions gave them celebrity status and raised the national awareness of adoption from Korea. A year later the Holt Adoption Program was formally incorporated, laying the foundation for the Holt Adoption Agency and serving as a gateway for thousands of Korean children to be adopted to the U.S.

More contemporarily, celebrity adoptions such as those by Mia Farrow or Julie Andrews, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, or Jillian Michaels, to name a few, continue to garner public interest in and awareness about transnational transracial adoptions. Celebrity adoptions raise questions about the legality and ethics of transnational adoption, the best interest of children in orphanages, and the best method to help orphaned children and their birth countries. Additionally, these highly publicized adoptions raise the question of if celebrity adoptions turn transnational adoptions into simply fashionable trends to follow.

As a scholar who is interested in the role of popular culture on attitudes and identity, I wonder how such highly publicized adoptions impact people’s decisions to adopt, how we as a society think about adoption, and how adoptees themselves think about themselves.

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Post-Election Adoptee Racial Awareness

In a post-presidential election world, many people are trying to figure out where they fit, how they will be affected, and what they should do next. Within my Korean adoptee networks, I see people coming to a realization that they, in fact, aren’t white despite being raised by white families, growing up in predominately white communities, and being relatively accepted in their white social networks. As race-based hate crimes rise across the country, cries of “they’re attacking ASIANS now, too!” demonstrate how distant many adoptees are from our co-ethnics. Our friend circles along with our knowledge of American history are just as devoid of people who look like us.

Instead of understanding how adoption from Korea is situated within this paradox of anti-Asian sentiment on one hand and racial exceptionalism on the other, Korean adoptees largely are raised within ideas of colorblindness and multiculturalism that overlook their racial group membership and ethnic background while at the same time making these differences exotic enough to be fashionable yet manageable enough to be unthreatening. For the transnational transracial adoptees who, because of this election, are just now coming to understand themselves as racialized beings, I hope that they persist in this realization. But beyond that, I hope they understand how they have been complicit in the subjugation of other communities of color, those that they are not members of and those that they are, and then how they can proactively fight against injustice.

And I wonder, how do white adoptive parents make sense of themselves and their non-white (adopted) children? For adoptive parents who are just now coming to understand their children as non-white, does the care for their children extend to the racial and ethnic communities that they now understand they are connected to?

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Korean Adoptee Cultural Production

During the 1990s, Korean adoptees began forming online and in-person networking groups, enabled by the mass availability of the Internet. Today, many of those adoptee groups are still in existence. In addition to Korean adoptee groups, which facilitate adoptees’ understanding about their racial, ethnic, and adoptee identities and create a global network of Korean adoptees, Korean adoptees create various forms of media reflecting their adoptee experiences. These artistic forms include books, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and documentaries to name a few.

Together these various forms of Korean adoptee cultural production both reflect and shape the boundaries of a Korean adoptee community and culture. They also highlight how Korean adoptees have come to understand who they are in relation to their family, community, and nation(s). Unlike early predictions that Korean adoptees would quietly assimilate into their (white) American families and communities, Korean cultural production challenges these assimilation expectations.

Below I highlight some examples of Korean adoptee cultural production. While the list is not exhaustive it does provide a starting point for people who want to understand more about Korean adoptee experiences and issues shaping the Korean adoptee community.


Blogs, Vlogs, and Podcasts


  • Borshay Liem, Deann. 2000. First Person Plural
  • Borshay Liem, Deann. 2010. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee
  • Borshay Liem, Deann. 2016. Geographies of Kinship 
  • Twinsters available on Netflix
  • akaDAN
  • akaSeoul
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