Joy Alessi is 50 year-old Korean American adoptee, born in South Korea, and adopted at 7 months old to U.S. citizens. She assumed like many, that she was an American citizen, but like others, found out she didn’t have citizenship. 

“From my earliest memories, I knew that as a foreign adoptee others perceived me as an “Alien.” I grew up in a predominantly “white” environment, and although I felt American on the inside, I always felt treated as an inferior outsider.”

“When I was 15, I wanted to travel overseas on a youth mission trip, but my parents prevented from going because (as I have since learned) they never filed naturalization papers after my adoption. Today, nearly 35 years later, I discovered that my mother contacted the adoption agency for proof of citizenship, but neither they or my parents took measures to resolve this. My parents also told me that a birth certificate was not available for adoptees, an error that I recently uncovered. I finally located my (archived) “Delayed Birth Registration,” and after nearly 50 years, I have the birth certificate I was meant to have. Had my parents asked for a copy following the adoption proceedings, my entire life would have been different. As explained to me by the state, this record proves my citizenship through legal adoption.”

It wasn’t until later in her twenties that she learned first-hand that she wasn’t a naturalized citizen.

“At age 25, married with two children, I tried to obtain a passport, but without a birth certificate, I was denied the right even to apply. This was also when I discovered my citizenship problem. I was stunned, paralyzed with fear. I could hardly comprehend how the legal process of both adoption and marriage had not secured my citizenship. USCIS confirmed my legal status and issued a new green card. However, I knew nothing about green card laws and USCIS did not explain my legal options. Instead, they suggested I hire an Immigration lawyer, something I couldn’t afford at the time. They also referred me to the Korean Consulate for passport services, yet another hurdle since the applications are only available in Korean. After hiring a translator to sift through my Korean adoption records, I finally received a Korean passport, but this is the process I’ve had to repeat for the last twenty-five years. I also had to register my husband and children with the Korean government; again, absorbing the expense of translation services, application fees and the extra time that these cumbersome processes involve. And, I must also follow the same taxing protocols with USCIS.”

How has it affected her family and friends?

“Living without citizenship is similar to living with a congenital disability, it is an integrated challenge that limits my way of life. Worst of all, it limits the credibility I’ve worked hard to establish and denies my voice as an American. Adoption in my case was not salvation, and aside from my turbulent childhood, these documentation errors and restrictive legal policies have hampered my entire life. There is no greater impact from adoption than that which the adoptee absorbs. Families and countries who fail to provide proper resources for foreign adoptees are blind to the struggles we face as children that clearly lead to serious complications in adulthood. I am 50 years old and still fighting for the rights promised to me through adoption, and Congress has repeatedly rejected initiatives from the adoptee community to rectify this because of the looming Immigration crisis, which is also a burden to those like me because we face the same scrutiny as illegal immigrants. “

What would citizenship mean to her?

“I have spent my life here; I have invested in this country in every way. I am American but if my claim to citizenship is not approved, how will I overcome the challenges of my senior years? Will I be separated from my family? Will I be able to provide for my son who has Autism? Indeed, these are my responsibilities, but I need my country’s help. Remember, I lack the right to vote on the very policies that govern my future. How will citizenship affect me now? Although I accept the lifetime loss of my citizenship benefits, it will provide the protection I was meant to enjoy as the daughter of US citizens. My mother’s family were proud southerners; my father is a proud US Navy veteran. Citizenship Recognition will also protect my children and grandchildren who enjoy the very rights intended for me. I’m relieved they will never have these worries, which was ultimately the intent of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. This law grants retroactive and automatic citizenship for all intercountry adoptees. However, the law’s legalese excluded all foreign adoptees who entered the US before 1983. It is said that lawmakers at the time believed those of us who were of legal age could resolve this on our own but adoption laws deny us full access to the very documents required to support our claims. And, even when lucky enough to get our hands on these documents, USCIS often denies us on the mere basis that our parents neglected “filing-protocols” when we were minors. How is this right? We feel like it’s a vicious cycle of “gotchas.” So today, because the reformed adoption-citizenship provision excludes those from 1950-1983, we have three decades of adoptees who are approaching the most vulnerable time in our lives, our retirement. We estimate there are roughly 35,000 us of in the US, though the actual numbers are unclear because many are unaware of their status, and some are too fearful to come forward given the tense political climate. After a lifetime of bureaucratic hurdles, we now have a generation of Amerian adoptees who face losing our retirement benefits on top of being excluded from various property rights and survivor spousal benefits. In reality, we are the least recognized Americans in the claim to our civil rights.”

What about citizenship for those that have arrest records (which has been a sticking point in getting laws passed including the Adoptee Citizenship Act which failed to be turned into law during the last legislative session)?

“I believe the answer is far less complicated than we as a country assert. The one adoption law that hasn’t changed explicitly maintains that through legal adoption, we are beneficiaries of the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities of every other natural born child. These are the final words on our court decrees. If we are to rely on our legal system, I argue that we must judiciously exercise the laws for all citizens. This is a democracy, is it not?”

For more information on what you can do to support all Asian American adoptees to have citizenship, visit http://adopteerightscampaign.org or their FB page here.

Per Joy’s request, this post was edited on 4/18/2017 to include some updated information and answers. As each adoptee’s journey is their own, and their stories are their own, I wanted to make sure and respect the way she talked about her journey, ideas, and as a Korean American adoptee.