Corruption in international adoptions

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Denying an orphan visa

Denying an orphan visa:
  USCIS appeals

Both “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010, and “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis,” Foreign Policy Online, September 12, 2010, discuss how difficult it is to regulate adoption fraud and corruption through U.S. immigration law. That’s the only federal law that permits the U.S. government to oversee international adoptions from countries that have not entered the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. And immigration law is inadequate to dealing with international adoption.

How inadequate is it? Consider what international adoption looks like to prospective parents who are adopting from “non-Hague” countries. For months, they deal with private adoption agencies and social workers, filling out documents, getting fingerprinted, and paying thousands in non-refundable fees. Finally their adoption agency sends them a “referral” picture of a child whom the agency says is free for, and in need of, adoption. The family pays its final $5,000-10,000 in (often non-refundable) fees to reserve this child. The agency tells them to take their penultimate step: fill out the U.S. immigration service’s I-600 application (the form for adoptions from non-Hague countries) for an orphan visa for that child. The agency assures them this is just a bureaucratic formality—which is usually true.

But few prospective parents realize that those forms authorize the U.S. government—for the first time—to investigate whether that child is adoptable under U.S. law. The parent-hopefuls may believe their “adoption journey” is almost at an end—but for the U.S. government, it is just beginning.

Few prospective parents realize that, by filing those forms, they legally take on sole responsibility for proving that child is an orphan. USCIS has no official relationship with their adoption agency. Its only legal power is to investigate whether the I-600 application’s facts are accurate. Approving or denying the “orphan visa” application proceeds on the fiction that the adopting family has independent knowledge about their promised child. 

If USCIS or the State Department refuse to issue the visa, prospective parents may not believe the official allegations of fraud or corruption in the child’s history. Or they may be horrified at the thought of leaving their new child behind in an orphanage to an uncertain future. These prospective parents may appeal the U.S. government’s visa decision through an administrative appeals process, and if they wish, all the way up through the federal courts. That process is wrenching and difficult for everyone involved, as is illustrated by the story below.

Denying an orphan visa is particularly difficult. The regulatory problems are outlined by Trish Maskew, who teaches a course in adoption law and policy at American University’s Washington College of Law, in her 2005 article “Child Trafficking and International Adoption.” In brief, she explains that the standard of review is “preponderance of the evidence.” Each case is treated individually; context does not count.

For instance, USCIS may not consider why a particular orphanage that has begun working with an American international adoption agency is seeing a suspiciously steep increase in infant girls available for adoption—although nearby orphanages continue to host primarily older and special needs children, who are in less demand by prospective American parents. USCIS may not consider the fact that the documentation behind orphan visa applications coming from that orphanage all look suspiciously alike, as if the same template were being used over and over, albeit with different names and dates.

Maskew contends that the regulatory standard is set too high, writing, “Short of a confession, it is hard to fathom what kind of direct evidence the USCIS Officer in Charge could possibly unearth to support the charge of child buying” (p.7). What Maskew is essentially saying is that USCIS can deny a visa, in effect, only if a birthparent asks for the child back; witnesses testify to having seen an explicit tit-for-tat financial transaction for the child; or the “child finder” confesses to having wrongly taken the child from the birthfamily.

To illustrate this process, we offer: 

  • The story of one family, Mary and Martin Quigley, who appealed their child’s orphan visa denials issued by USCIS in the fall of 2007, for the son they had already adopted under Vietnamese law.
    • Mary Quigley wrote a letter responding to “The Baby Business.”
  • Five USCIS appeals decisions on orphan visa applications that were denied by the local USCIS field offices, four in the Ho Chi Minh City office and one in Guatemala City. These four documents reveal how much evidence is required to deny an “orphan visa” application—a standard that is almost impossible to meet. In four cases, the evidence was so overwhelming that the prospective parents were not able to take the foreign-born child home. In one case, the appeals officer overturned the denial, and remanded the case back down for a visa. Each document reviews the relevant regulatory standards before weighing the facts presented to come to a decision.

    1. Sept. 21, 2007. The appeals decision notes that the “orphan visa” application documents stated that two men, one a Vietnamese police officer, found two babies wrapped in a blanket at 10 a.m. on November 16, 2006, in Phu Tho province. But an unlikely number of “abandoned” babies were found there. The U.S. Embassy sent someone to investigate and reported findings that cast serious doubt on the official story about those two girls. The visa was denied, and the decision was upheld.

      Questions remain, however. What happened to the two girls? Were they returned to the orphanage? Did they end up with a family—whether the ones they originally came from or some other family? What happened to the adoption agency that had partnered with what appears to be a corrupt orphanage? Immigration law offered no opportunity to take any corrective or punitive actions, if appropriate, against either the American adoption agency or the Vietnamese orphanage—or to care for the children.
    2. Jan. 9, 2009-2, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Beginning on p. 7 of this document, the appeals officer notes that the adoption agency and the Centre for Nourishment in Ha Tay Province had an agreement for humanitarian aid and adoption. On June 7, 2007, when the infant was two days old, her birthparents relinquished her at the orphanage; a week later they received US$400 in financial aid. (The World Bank recorded Vietnam's 2006 per capita income as approximately $690; roughly 20 percent of the country lived in poverty, on less than US$1.25/day, according to a variety of sources, such as the Canadian International Development Agency.

      In October 2007, the agency referred the infant for adoption. In January 2007, the birthparents asked the Ha Tay Centre for Nourishment for another US$562; they received it. Because there is no evidence that this “aid” was used only for “activities related to the adoption proceedings,” as required by U.S. regulations, the appeals officer let stand the visa denial, concluding that those funds were used for “child buying.” (Harrah’s Adoption International Mission, now defunct , is the agency which operated in that province and whose name and location accord with the details given in the decision.
    3. Jan. 9, 2009-1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Here again, in another case from Ha Tay that names the now-defunct agency Harrah’s Adoption International Mission, the appeals officer notes that the birthmother received more than US$800, which USCIS in Ho Chi Minh City concluded was significantly more than necessary for medical and other pregnancy expenses, and that the money came from “an agency working on behalf of the prospective adoptive parent.” The orphan visa was denied for “child-buying” and other deficiences. 
    4. May 13, 2009, Guatemala City, Guatemala. In this case, the appeals officer notes that the birthmother was promised approximately US$2,000 for her child; she “registered her son’s birth and authorized his adoption using a fraudulent identity” ,thus evading the need to get the birthfather’s consent, even though she had been living with him; lied about her young age, evading the need to get her mother’s consent. Finally, when she met with USCIS, she admitted she had lied and said she wanted her son back. When the prospective adoptive parents appealed, their lawyer submitted documents that appeared fraudulent. The visa denial was upheld. 
    5. Sept. 14, 2009, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. According to these documents, in 2007 a widowed mother agreed to give up her 7-year-old daughter to the “Centre for Merits and Disadvantaged People of Quang Binh,” making her available for adoption. The mother began getting a monthly stipend as a direct result of formally relinquishing her daughter for adoption. A month later, the daughter went back home to live with her mother. On interviewing the birthmother, a USCIS officer concluded that she didn’t understand that she would be giving her child up permanently, and that the birthmother didn’t meet the standard of being unable to provide the proper care, as the family lived in a comparatively large furnished house, with a telephone and television, plenty of food, an ability to educate the child, enough clothes, and access to needed medical care. But an adoption agency representative went back to interview the birthmother on camera, at which point she said again that she was indeed giving the child up “permanently.” The Vietnamese government issued documents saying that the mother was actually too poor to raise the child. Ignoring the monthly payments to the mother, relying on the videotaped interview, and crediting the Vietnamese government’s statement over USCIS’s observations, the USCIS appeals officer overruled the visa denial, clearing the way for the girl to be adopted to the U.S. 

    NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.

    © 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02454. All rights reserved.

    Last page update: February 24, 2011