US, Marshalls Concerned By Rise In Illegal Adoptions

Sarah Nelson, U.S. Embassy in Majuro: “A person cannot travel on Compact benefits to give a child up for adoption in the U.S.” 

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, July 17, 2017) – The United States government has flagged as a “concern” an apparent increase in illegal adoptions of Marshall Islands babies in the U.S. The Marshall Islands government also expressed worry about offshore adoptions that are not going through established legal processes in the Marshall Islands.

Internal Affairs Minister Amenta Matthew late last month wrote the First Circuit Court in Hawaii to express concern over “possible abuses of adoptions of Marshallese babies,” and to seek cooperation with Hawaii authorities to prevent trafficking in persons.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper ran a front-page story last week with the headline, “Marshallese adoptions raise some suspicions.”

“Following a hiatus of more than a decade, pregnant Marshallese women are coming to Hawaii late in their pregnancies, having their babies and then placing the newborns with mainland families for adoption under suspicious circumstances, health care providers, community advocates and others say,” said the Star-Advertiser article by Rob Perez. Visa-free entry privileges accorded Marshall Islanders by the Compact of Free Association specifically ban entry for the purpose of adoption.

The Hawaii newspaper article quoted a number of Hawaii health care providers who say pregnant Marshallese women come to Hawaii in small groups, “assisted by the same Marshallese facilitator, who handles translation and power-of-attorney services and accompanies them to their medical appointments. They list the same local address. They seem to be coached to answer questions in ways that minimize suspicions and circumvent regulations meant to prohibit unethical adoptions.”

The Compact of Free Association, which provides visa-free access to the U.S. for Marshall Islands citizens, states: “A person who is coming to the United States pursuant to an adoption outside the United States, or for the purpose of adoption in the United States, is ineligible for admission under the Compact and the Compact, as amended.”

“A person cannot travel on Compact benefits to give a child up for adoption in the U.S.,” said Sarah Nelson, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Majuro. “There is a lot of anecdotal information of this happening in the U.S.”

For U.S. immigration officers at points of entry such as Honolulu, “it is difficult to make a decision as to the intent of the mother,” Nelson added.

The U.S. Embassy has flagged this as an issue of concern and informed the State Department to start working with Homeland Security to address the problem, she said.

The belief that pregnant women in growing numbers are being taken to the U.S. to live until they deliver their babies, which are then given up for adoption, is supported by Marshall Islands High Court statistics. Legal adoptions through the High Court were as low as nine in 2007. After which the numbers climbed. From 2009-2012, the number of legal adoptions handled in Majuro ranged from 20 to 26 per year. It jumped to 34 in 2014. But since then, adoptions declined dramatically with 21 in 2015, 18 last year and eight through the first six months of 2017.

A Marshallese baby born in the U.S. automatically becomes a U.S. citizen at birth, which means that an American family intending to adopt can do so through a U.S. court wherever they live instead of shouldering the cost of coming to the Marshall Islands and complying with a range of U.S. government requirements for international adoptions. But this is illegal if a pregnant woman traveled to the U.S. intending to put her unborn baby up for adoption, according to the Compact.

Minister Matthew’s letter to the First Circuit Court of Hawaii noted that in 2007, the Marshall Islands and Hawaii state governments joined to establish a policy governing adoptions for the protection of the children being adopted.

“In March 2007, the Family Courts in the state of Hawaii responded to national and local concerns regarding possible abuses of adoptions of Marshallese babies and established (an agreement) that applies to all adoptions filed involving birth parents from the Republic of the Marshall Islands no matter who initiates the petition,” Matthew said. She asked if this policy agreement was still in place with the Hawaii courts. If not, “the government wishes to begin consulting on renewing this (agreement) given this issue was previously raised…and it is still of interest to both the state of Hawaii and the government of the Marshall Islands. The government hopes to establish a similar (agreement) with State of Hawaii law enforcement based on mutual legal assistance in prevention of trafficking in persons, especially trafficking of children through adoptions.”

The legal procedure for an American family seeking to adopt a Marshallese child is to first apply to Homeland Security for clearance, which involves a home study of the American family. Once Homeland Security gives clearance, then the family can initiate an adoption proceeding through American adoption agencies that are authorized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Central Adoption Agency. Once a child is identified, the process moves to a review by the High Court. Once the High Court approves the adoption, then the family applies to the U.S. Embassy in Majuro for a visa for the adopted child. This ultimately requires approval from the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Once the visa is issued, it confers U.S. citizenship on the adopted child upon arrival in the U.S. Marshall Islanders who enter under the visa-free status of the Compact of Free Association are not eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after they arrive in the United States.

As High Court statistics suggest, this process appears to be on the decline as more young Marshallese pregnant women are being flown to the U.S. to deliver babies for adoption.

Marianas Variety
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