Post Archives: Asian American Adoptees Without Citizenship

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

 This article was originally written for the YOMYOMF blog which was closed approximately two years ago and is being re-posted here for archival purposes.


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 understood that I was adopted; growing up in a predominantly white culture and environment my adoptee status was never a ‘non-issue’. During adolescence, the struggles I faced as a foreign adoptee were solely emotional. In spite of my acute awareness of my minority status I felt entirely American and believed I identified with my peers yet understood that I was perceived differently.

The practical challenges of my citizenship status began at age 15 when I intended to travel overseas on a youth mission trip. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had never filed post adoption Naturalization papers and instead of correcting it then, she simply prevented me from taking the mission trip. I recently discovered that she had contacted the adoption agency during that time, yet failed to take further action. She did let me know that I was not a naturalized citizen but explained that the only repercussion was the lack of a formal birth certificate. As a young adult, I grew accustomed to carrying around my adoption decree as a means for all necessary identification. This was particularly taxing because my name was changed during the adoption but not recorded properly. Instead of redrafting the documents, my adoptive father hand scribbled through the error on the final decree, forcing me to rely on the leniency of individuals who questioned its validity.”

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 applied for a U.S. passport to take a vacation to Mexico and was denied by the Texas U.S. Passport Bureau. I was shocked to discover my lack of citizenship; I thought any citizenship issues would have been resolved through my marital status. It was incredibly stressful and confusing, and I had very few resources at my disposal.

I immediately followed up with Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) who confirmed my Legal Permanent Resident status (LPR) and requisitioned an updated Alien (Green) Card, which had not been done since my arrival into the U.S. at 7 months old. INS further directed me to the Korean Consulate for passport services. Navigating through the Korean passport application process was especially difficult given the forms then, and are still currently only available in Korean. The Consulate employees were not helpful and treated my inability to communicate in Korean as an egregious error. After employing a translator who sifted through my Korean documents, I was finally able to submit my application and received a ROK Passport. For subsequent Passport renewal, I was required to repeat this process every four years until two years ago, when the ROK changed the term to ten years. At present, I am considered a Korean Citizen living abroad with full ROK status.”

How has it affected her family and friends?

“The impact of my citizenship status is primarily absorbed by myself and my current spouse, which I find ironic since I obviously did not petition for, or broker my adoption. The problems, fees for applications, fees for services including legal advice, have fallen on me throughout. My adoptive parents have not contributed and remain reticent over their responsibility in this matter.”

What would citizenship mean to her?

“Acquiring citizenship would open the door to opportunities that have been excluded from me, although realistically, as the years have passed, my life course could not recover some benefits such as a long-term career pursuit through academic financial support. Nonetheless, equally significant benefits to me through U.S. citizenship are employment opportunities, tax benefits, current real estate incentives and future real estate/or survivor benefits, future social entitlements, civic rights, and retirement benefits to name a few. Additionally, acquiring U.S. Citizenship will provide peace of mind knowing I will never face separation from my adult son with special needs.”

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)?

“When an adoptee’s citizenship is properly handled by the counties, agencies, and citizens who broker, arrange, and receive payment for, is the child then legally deportable for any reason (other than defection or treason)?”

For more information on what you can do to support all Asian American adoptees to have citizenship, visit