International adoption from foreign countries to the United States officially began right after World War II. A new phenomenon, U.S. citizens adopted an estimated 35,000 children from overseas from 1947 to 1975. Although numbers were low compared to those of domestic adoptions that occurred in this period, these adoptions were widely publicized and highly visible.
Factors Leading to Increase in Adoptions
International adoption’s rise was the result of many factors. Relief organizations and private citizens first considered the adoption of French and Belgian orphans to the United States during and after World War I, but restrictive immigration laws and isolationist foreign policies quickly stymied such efforts.
Domestic factors also contributed to international adoption’s growing popularity. U.S. child welfare agencies were scrambling to meet the demand for adoptable children in the post-World War II era. By the late-1940s, the U.S. birthrate jumped, ushering in a baby boom. Along with birthrate increases, U.S. culture became decidedly pronatalist, leading couples unable to have children to go to great lengths to build their families. Legislators in congressional hearings frequently referenced U.S. couples’ astounding interest in adoption. To assist such couples, federal lawmakers liberalized immigration policies, limited the regulation of adoption markets, and perpetuated policies that gave volunteer adoption placements significant clout. Indeed, these factors made international adoption accessible, affordable, and efficient for American families.
Changing Countries of Origin
After a multiyear dip brought on by decreasing hot spots in the Cold War conflict, the U.S. adoption of foreign children reached a historic high by 1987 at just over 10,000 placements, nearly doubling from annual totals of around 5,000 in the previous decade. Although countries like Greece and Vietnam no longer sent children to the United States, Korean adoptions grew throughout the 1980s, driven by government pressures on single mothers to relinquish their children for overseas adoption in response to rapid urbanization and industrialization. Over the next twenty-five years, annual totals held steady for a decade before growing significantly starting in 1996. And as in the past, large-scale geopolitical changes meant new sending countries for foreign children. When the Cold War ended, for instance, there was a large uptick in children adopted from the orphanages of Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. Although adoptions began tapering noticeably in 2009 because of, among other factors, increasing restrictions under the Hague Convention, international adoption continues to be a prominent method of family formation. Indeed, since 1999, Americans have adopted over 271,000 children from overseas.
The Hague Convention
The Externer Link: Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is an international agreement that was concluded on May 29, 1993, in The Hague, Netherlands. It establishes international safeguards for intercountry adoptions by introducing standards of practices. It aims at guarding the child's best interests and preventing abuse such as trafficking in children as well as ensuring that international adoption is a “last resort.”
Changes to Immigration Laws
Making international adoptions feasible required changes to existing immigration laws. Under the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act (more commonly referred to as the National Origins Act), U.S. immigrants were subject to restrictive quotas, limiting those coming from countries in South and East Asia to one hundred per country. Thus, to permit the entry of foreign children for adoption, legislators had to grant exceptions. At first, they used special directives and focused their efforts on European children. From 1946-48, President Harry Truman issued a special directive giving displaced orphans “preferential treatment” in visa distribution, which authorized 1,387 European orphans to be placed primarily with relatives. Then, in 1948, Congress included orphan provisions in the Displaced Persons Act, which provided 3,000 non-quota visas to orphaned European children. Unlike special directives, these adoptions placed children with strangers and gave U.S. families hope that they could adopt a child from abroad.
Up until this point, immigration provisions for international adoptees only applied to children from European countries. But in 1950, Public Law 717 extended citizenship to the children of foreign women and U.S. military forces, regardless of race. Along with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which ended the decades-long exclusion on Asian migration and citizenship, these laws established the possibility for U.S. citizens to adopt children from Asia. Nevertheless, the 1952 law maintained small quotas for Asian countries. Congress circumvented these limits through refugee law, namely the 1953 Refugee Relief Act. This act permitted 4,000 international adoptees to enter the United States regardless of origin country.
Until 1961, U.S. immigration law categorized foreign orphans as refugees. At a time when the “traditional” refugee was a European anticommunist, fleeing from political and religious persecution, officials remapped the definition of refugee so that foreign orphans from “friendly” countries such as Ireland, West Germany, and South Korea qualified. That federal policymakers used refugee law was no accident. Refugee policies resonate with political and diplomatic prerogatives. Through more expansive refugee policies, sympathetic lawmakers could circumvent the existing race-based quota system, which remained under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act. If funneled through the immigration quota system, the number of South Koreans adoptees would have been limited to one hundred—a number far below the demand from U.S. families.
But adoptees did not remain refugees. Once international adoption had received widespread acclaim and support, in 1961 it became a permanent part of immigration law, and foreign adoptees were reclassified as immigrants: albeit, immigrants subject to no quotas or ceilings. Since the 1965 Hart-Celler Act maintained a global quota system of 20,000 immigrants per country and a 290,000 total ceiling, no other migrants enjoyed such privilege. In effect, through this law, the United States declared that it would welcome as many foreign orphans as U.S. couples wanted to adopt.
Another way that legislators authorized the entry of foreign children was through the use of parole visas. Introduced under the Eisenhower administration to admit individual political refugees on a moment’s notice, it was most often used for airlifting large numbers of migrants, including those displaced by the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Adoptees – Privileged Immigrants
Comparing international adoptee’s migrations with the fate of other child migrants highlights their uniqueness. Under current immigration law, citizen children under the age of 21 are unable to sponsor their parents to obtain permanent residency. Thus, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than 100,000 deportations separated citizen children from parents, causing over one million family members to lose a parent or spouse. More recently, the Trump Administration has provoked international outrage over its enforcement of a “zero-tolerance” policy for border crossers. Criminalizing these migrants has led to the separation of children from their parents, sometimes for months, before deportation. Unaccompanied minors also face few options. Although they cannot be immediately deported, unless the governing agency determines that children are being persecuted or trafficked, they will eventually be deported. Driven by increasing violence in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in 2014 the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 90 percent. Of the nearly 100,000 children apprehended in 2014, analysts estimate that 60 percent were eventually deported. As these examples show, inequities exist for foreign children migrating to the United States. At least in terms of immigration law, international adoptees are still considered the “best possible immigrants.”
And in Germany?
As in the United States, foreign children and juveniles migrating to Germany by way of adoption through an adult with German citizenship, enjoy privileges other child migrants such as unaccompanied minors do not. If the adoption is considered lawful and the adoptee is under the age of 18, he or she is immediately granted German citizenship. Between 1991 and 2016 couples in Germany adopted 146,580 children and adolescents 35,230 of which were foreign citizens. While the annual number of adoptions in the 1990s stood at 6,400 to 8,700, adoptions have seen a notable decrease thereafter. Since 2012 less than 4,000 children have been adopted annually.*
*Website of the German Federal Central Office for International Adoptions [Bundeszentralstelle für Auslandsadoptionen], accessed August 17, 2018, Externer Link: https://www.bundesjustizamt.de/DE/Themen/Buergerdienste/BZAA/BZAA_node.html; German Federal Statistical Office [Statistisches Bundesamt], Statistiken der Kinder- und Jugendhilfe. Adoptionen 2016 (Wiesbaden, 2018), accessed August 17, 2018, Externer Link: https://www.destatis.de/ .