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Just like that, my kids are citizens

By PAUL DE LA GARZA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


WASHINGTON -- On Feb. 27, 2001, my 6-year-old son Carlos and my 7-year-old daughter Monica became U.S. citizens. While that sentence may not go down as the punchiest lede in the annals of American journalism, it sure felt good writing it.

Thanks to a change in immigration law governing foreign adoptions, my kids made U.S. history. Not only were they in the first batch of people to become American citizens under the new statute, they also were part of the largest number of people to become American citizens in a single day.

Conservative estimates put the number of children affected by the new law at 75,000, although the figure is believed to be much higher.

What made the day doubly sweet is that like thousands of other American couples, my wife and I were completely taken by surprise.

I read about the new law the day it took effect.

Under the Child Citizenship Act, adopted children born abroad were granted automatic citizenship last Tuesday, provided they were under 18 and at least one parent or legal guardian was an American citizen.

After reading the article, I scrambled to see if Monica and Carlos -- who, by the way, are brother and sister by birth -- qualified.

Although we met the criteria, I wanted to be sure.

I checked the Web site for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and I made telephone calls to Capitol Hill seeking information.

As it turned out, I wasn't alone.

The telephones at INS and at the offices of Rep. Bill Delahunt, the Massachusetts Democrat behind the legislation, were ringing off the wall.

"You can't imagine how many tears have been shed in calls from around the country," said Steve Schwadron, a Delahunt spokesman, although actually I could. "People are basically stunned," he said.

I would say they're also relieved.

After undergoing a foreign adoption, which at times can get downright loopy, the last thing you want is to deal with even more red tape with the naturalization process, a process that can take two years if you're lucky.

Consider our situation, which by international adoption standards, was ideal.

We already were living in Mexico City and the orphanage was maybe five minutes from our house. We underwent a socioeconomic study and psychological tests and criminal background checks and enough paperwork to destroy a small forest.

And we took a beating emotionally.

We survived the orphanage's initial assessment that we were in "too much pain" to adopt, that we hadn't properly "mourned" our inability to conceive.

We survived its mandatory parenting classes, where, at one point, we were shown a 1960s-era film of monkeys and exposed brains and electrodes as part of a "lesson" that everyone needs a mother. We even survived the Mexican guard posted outside the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, where you go to get America's permission to adopt.

He wouldn't let us in because we had a pocket calculator.

"How do I know it's not a bomb?" he demanded.

He didn't like our response.

Judy Collins, who lives outside Boston, is well aware of the frustrations involving foreign adoptions. She is the mother of three adopted children -- all girls -- one born here and the other two born in China.

Delahunt's office said she had a lot to do with the drafting of the new law.

In 1997, Collins wrote to Delahunt -- himself an adoptive parent of a daughter rescued during the fall of Saigon -- opposing yet another immigration bill requiring that all foreign-born adopted children be vaccinated before entering the United States.

Familiar with medical practices in China, she feared that the law would place the lives of the children in danger.

On Tuesday, at a ceremony in Boston, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., handed Collins' 3-year-old daughter, Madison, the first American passport issued under the Child Citizenship Act. Although adopted children can still get proof of U.S. citizenship through INS, the State Department has made it easier for them to apply for a passport, which is just as good.

In a telephone interview, Collins said that for her, the ceremony brought closure.

"They're just like any other kid in America now," she said.

And that's the beauty of it, right there.

Until we got them last May, after a nearly two-year process, the future for Carlos and Monica looked bleak.

After four years in the orphanage -- they had been abused and abandoned by their parents -- they were getting too old to get noticed, and more than likely, if I know Mexico, what awaited them was a life of deprivation. To put it in perspective, my kids didn't even know what milk was when we got them.

Now look at them, at the gift their Uncle Sam has given them.

As Delahunt put it when President Clinton signed the bill into law last October, "that child is an American and should be treated as an American."

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