The need to assure adoptees of their belonging is more crucial during this time of race hatred | Column by Christine Drenka (Spring 2020 issue)
“Go back to China!”
The schoolyard taunt I grew up hearing used to be easy to brush off as ignorance. Now it’s a threat, reminding me how quickly xenophobia spreads when racism is disguised as self-preservation.
Reports of anti-Asian bigotry are on the rise, sparked by fears of COVID-19. Recently, the FBI warned of a possible surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans based on “the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.”
I am not from China, despite a lifetime’s worth of remarks telling me to return there. My parents adopted me from South Korea when I was three months old and took all the necessary steps to make sure I became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
But some adoptive parents did not understand that their children weren’t granted citizenship automatically when the adoption was finalized or may have been curbed by the cost and paperwork of the process.
Today, approximately 35,000 of my fellow adoptees are living without citizenship. Between fears of deportation and racial violence, it’s difficult to feel a sense of belonging in the place that should be home.
The Child Citizenship Act, passed by Congress in 2000, granted automatic citizenship to children adopted by U.S. citizens, but did not benefit adult adoptees retroactively. The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 (H.R. 2731 and S. 1554), introduced in May with bipartisan support, would close that loophole by granting retroactive citizenship for all inter-country adoptees and providing a path to return home for deported adoptees.
To date, at least 35 adoptees have been deported to their birth countries —- including 42-year-old Korean adoptee Phillip Clay, who ended his life in 2017 by jumping from the 14th floor of an apartment building north of Seoul. The thought of being banished to the country who abandoned me as an infant, with-out familiar language, livelihood or loved ones, is almost incomprehensible.
A study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, revealed that the odds of a reported suicide attempt were four times greater in adoptees compared to non-adopted people. Both COVID-19 and deportation can be a death sentence for already-vulnerable populations, but only the latter discriminates by race.
Restrictive immigration laws in the U.S. have been historically rooted in racism, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. It was extended in 1892 for another 10 years by the Geary Act, made permanent in 1902, and repealed only in 1943 during World War II when the U.S. needed to solidify China’s allyship.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the laws a “historic mistake” in a letter to Congress, but was also thepresident who signed Executive Order 9066 commanding the internment of Japanese Americans after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Echoes of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment reverberate even in this century with the Muslim Ban and the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
In his tweet about the “Chinese Virus,” President Trump also stated, “We will be stronger than ever before!”
This begs the question: Who is “we?”
Asian Americans are the perpetual Foreigner, constantly interrogated about where we are really from. We are exoticized, othered and dehumanized. The practice of deportation becomes easier for the public to accept and support when those sent away are considered outsiders. Even more so, when their race or ethnicity is considered dangerous.
Last month, an Asian American teenager was physically attacked in California by bullies who accused him of having the coronavirus. An Asian family was stabbed while shopping at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies department reviewed 141 news stories within the span of two weeks about coronavirus discrimination in the U.S.
I am haunted, remembering the words spoken to Chinese American Vincent Chin in 1982 before he was beaten to death amidst worries that Japanese imports were impacting the U.S. auto manufacturing industry:
“It’s because of you little motherf*ckers that we’re out of work!” Panic and ignorance are often a lethal combination.
The current global pandemic concerns me just as much as the next person. My biological sisters, with whom I was reunited in 2013, are both nurses in Korea and facing the dangers of coronavirus from the frontline. I worry for their safety every day.
Of course, every logical precaution should be taken in the service of public health. These are frightening times. That said, I believe the antidote for fear is not hatred, but empathy.
It is as important as ever now to remember our shared humanity and protect those most vulnerable, including the thousands of adoptees living in the U.S. without citizenship.
Organizations such as the Adoptee Rights Campaign and Adoptees for Justice are fighting to guarantee their naturalization. I urge you to support these efforts by contacting your congressional representative and asking them to co-sponsor the 2019 Adoptee Citizenship Act.
Lawmakers have a chance to learn from the “historic mistakes” of our past and enact policy that welcomes rather than excludes. Prejudice is far more insidious than any virus and its harm outlasts generations. Fortunately, with courage and compassion, we may find the cure already in our hearts.