The Case for Joon Hyun Kim
Thanks to Sume, and ADK for bringing this article to my attention.
BY KEVIN MINH ALLEN
The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 took effect in early 2001 with much fanfare coming from the adoption community because it automatically confers U.S. citizenship on adopted children once their adoptions are legally finalized. In spite of this, transnational adoptees who were adopted before this law took effect, and had not become naturalized citizens, represent some of the most vulnerable immigrants in the United States. Unbeknownst to them, and most likely their adoptive parents, their immigration status is tenuous, even though they grew up believing they were fully recognized members of American society. Kevin Minh Allen reports on the story of Joon Hyun Kim.
The visitation room inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma is as stark as anyone could imagine such a place to be – hard plastic chairs, dirty plaster walls and hushed monologues being transmitted by phone to the inmates on the other side of the thick soundproof glass. The long, white room elicits an air of secrecy, mixed with loneliness and isolation. It is within this private-contracted facility that I met Joon Hyun Kim, a tall, lanky, thoroughly unassuming man of 25.
He is not the first adult adoptee with a criminal record that the government wants to deport back to his birth country. But, Kim’s case once again illustrates the fateful convergence of decisions made and not made by adoptive parents and adoptees, who are eventually left to confront the issues of ethnicity and nationality by themselves and without much guidance.
As soon as I saw Kim, his body language spoke volumes. It told a story of stoic resignation in the face of bureaucratic machinations and acceptance of the fact that his freedom lies in other people’s hands. He’s also had a lot of time to think about how his life could have turned out if childhood circumstances had been different, but that also he has to atone for the mistakes he has made as a young adult.
However, the biggest mistake that he will have to live down for the rest of his life was not of his own doing: his adoptive parents forgot their responsibility to have Kim made a naturalized U.S. citizen. This process should have been second nature to his adoptive parents, seeing that his mother worked for Holt International, a well-known and respected Northwest adoption agency.
All this time, though, Kim thought he was an American citizen. And, why wouldn’t he? Adopted from South Korea at the age of six, he learned English, was nourished with American food and did everything that most American boys do growing up.
Things started falling apart, though, when Kim rebelled against the strict religious sensibilities of his adoptive parents. His mother was particularly punitive toward him for not excelling at academics like his older sister, who was his parents’ biological child. She took away any pleasure he had found while living in a small town in Oregon.
A short-lived reprieve was offered Kim when his parents allowed him to stay at a farm owned by friends of theirs in South Bend, Ore. for the summer. While there, he helped with the upkeep of the farm, enjoying the physical activity and the much less stringent religious observations. Kim liked being there so much that he asked his parents if he could stay in order to make a fresh start; his parents’ friends were willing to take him in. Unfortunately, his parents wouldn’t hear of it and told him he would have to continue living with them.
A year later, everything came to a head, and because of his mother’s actions – something Kim still doesn’t totally understand, nor can forgive – he had to leave his adoptive family of four years and live with a foster family for several months. At the age of 13, he moved in with his adoptive aunt and stayed with her until he turned 18.
After Kim left his aunt’s care, he picked the wrong crowd to befriend. He became addicted to drugs, and stole things in order to support his habit. In 2004, he was convicted of three counts of first-degree theft. He spent nine months in county jail and was subsequently placed on probation. Due to a lapse in reporting to his probation officer, Kim was picked up by the police and fingerprinted. It was at this time that, to his complete surprise, he found out he was not a U.S. citizen.
Kim now has a little daughter, and he will make it clear in the upcoming deportation hearing this month that he is free from drugs and wants to do right by his daughter and her mother. He has put his old ways far behind him and simply wants a chance to become a productive member of society.
One of Kim’s earliest memories of his first few years growing up with his birthmother in Korea – besides her constant verbal and emotional abuse – was the overwhelming feeling of coldness in the house. Many years later, in a much different country, he still has that same cold feeling. But, he’s not giving up on the thought that he will one day see the sun again no matter where he ends up.
Once again here is another story of an adoptee who is facing potentially being deported back to Korea for his criminal record, and all because his a-parents didn’t naturalize him. It blows my mind that his mother worked for Holt International, and yet still did not get him naturalized upon arrival in the U.S.