This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Tara Ammons Cohen’s biggest crime isn’t a drug trafficking conviction. It’s being adopted.
The 37-year-old wife and mother wouldn’t be in federal custody awaiting deportation if she were the biological child of Darwin and Jean Ammons. She would likely be back in Omak, having done her prison time for the drug charge.
But because Cohen’s American parents adopted her from Mexico when she was 5 months old – and then relied on faulty legal advice – Cohen could be barred from the United States forever.
Cohen is not a U.S. citizen. She’s not even a permanent legal resident. In 1972, when the Ammonses rescued her from a Mexican orphanage, citizenship didn’t attach at adoption; adoptive parents had to apply for it.
The Ammonses were told differently, and it wasn’t until just a few years ago that Cohen found out she wasn’t a citizen.
The ramifications of her legal status became clear after she was convicted of drug trafficking for stealing a neighbor’s purse and telling cops she planned to sell the prescription drugs inside.
Drug trafficking is a surefire way to attract the attention of immigration officials. Last July, immigration agents picked Cohen up as she left a Spokane prison. She’s been at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma ever since.
Cohen’s particular case may not inspire much sympathy. Convicted drug dealers – even wannabe dealers – rarely do. But it exposes a gaping hole in U.S. immigration policy that essentially makes second-class citizens (or not) of adopted children.
Adoption law is clear: Adopted children are to enjoy the same rights as biological children. But as Cohen’s case illustrates, they don’t when it comes to the most basic right – that of citizenship. Had she been born on foreign soil to U.S. citizens, rather than adopted by them, her citizenship would have never been in question.
Congress has remedied the problem for current adoptees. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 automatically bestowed U.S. citizenship on adopted children. But it doesn’t apply retroactively. The National Council for Adoption estimates that thousands of foreign-born children adopted by U.S. citizens lack citizenship because their parents failed to take the proper steps.
Cohen – had she not gotten herself into legal hot water – would have had a path to permanent residency and eventually citizenship through her husband, who is a U.S. citizen.
But consider the plight of a Mexican-born adoptee who is unmarried and has a clean record. Because of the visa restrictions on immigrants from that country, that adoptee would face an 18-year wait just to get a visa. It would be another five years before he could apply to become citizen – and that’s without a blemish on his record.
The wait is shorter but no less terminal for unmarried adoptees born in other countries. If they started the legal process today, they might be eligible for citizenship in 2021 – all because their adoptive parents failed to jump through the right hoops before they turned 18.
Existing immigration law makes a mockery of adoption, presuming it something less than parentage by birth. The law needs to change.