If you have not seen the social media posts about a 17-year-old Haitian adoptee named Jonas Hubley, it’s a compelling if not devastatingly familiar campaign. But it does not provide a complete picture of the problems that have long impacted intercountry adoptees in the United States. And it’s probably not the full story about how this matter has been handled.
As described by his adoptive parents, Jonas is an autistic, blind, and nonverbal young man who will turn 18 in a few days. And unless US immigration officials approve a green card for him before he is 18, he will have to wait five years to apply for US citizen through naturalization.
In that respect Jonas is not a lot different from tens of thousands of intercountry adoptees in the United States today, who also do not have US citizenship, largely as a result of parental and adoption agency neglect. While that neglect is also compounded by the failure of the US government to fix outdated US immigration and family policies for intercountry adoptees, the reality is that the problem is going to happen again and again. And despite blaming immigration red tape and the US government for the issue, a popular narrative of the good of intercountry adoption is often used to deflect from the people who are typically to blame for immigration issues: adoptive parents who skipped or ignored critical steps in order to secure legal status for their foreign-born adopted children.
Currently, Jonas’s adoptive mother is using a social media blitz to “move heaven and earth” in order to prevent their adoptive son from being deported (which, realistically, is not going to happen). Her posts are replete with media contacts for supporters to call about Jonas’s story, ostensibly to put pressure on government officials to approve their son’s immigration application. Recently, Jonas’s mother drove from the family’s home in Indiana to New York, where she visited various major media outlets, each time requesting meetings with reporters to cover the story. For all of this, the Hubleys characterize Jonas’s crisis not as a problem of their own making but one involving a belief that US government officials have acted incompetently.
There’s a problem with this, and it’s not hard to pinpoint. The Hubleys—like many other adoptive parents over the years— have largely bypassed international legal protections for intercountry adoptions. In doing so, they have failed to do what is critically necessary to secure an adopted child’s legal immigrant status in the US. And it’s not an isolated issue. Rather, it’s a problem that far too many intercountry adoptees continue to encounter today, whether as a result of an adoptive parent’s immigration fraud or ignorance or because of ongoing governmental and parental neglect to do what’s necessary to fix major immigration issues for children brought to the US for adoption.
I know this as a lawyer who represents intercountry adoptees. Many of my clients, now adults, are adoptees whose adoptive parents used questionable if not illegal shortcuts years ago to get them into the country. Those shortcuts have included anything from fraud to neglect to supposed ignorance of US immigration law. Today, however, those shortcuts are now worn by my clients, some of whom have no easy path to US citizenship and may even face deportation in the future.
The reason adoptive parents do this may be obvious: bringing a child to the United States from another country for adoption is a highly regulated, complex, and expensive process—necessarily so. For that reason, bringing children “off the books” to the US on a tourist or other nonimmigrant visa is a tempting, inexpensive (and often illegal) method to avoid immigration requirements and procedures that govern adoptions from foreign countries. That’s just one problem. The other problem is assuming, as many adoptive parents do, that an adoption is all and everything you need, that it cures all other problems and leads to universal support as a way to fix your legal snafus. That’s a false assumption, yet it’s a popular narrative that whips up support for anyone who finds themselves having trouble navigating US immigration law involving intercountry adoptees.
In the Hubley’s case, they used a tourist visa in 2008 to bring Jonas from Haiti to Indiana, similar to how some of my clients’ adoptive parents used inappropriate legal tools to get their children into the US for adoptions. Parents of some of my clients, for example, “adopted” children in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s, and then crossed into the US with that child in their car, with no record of the child’s entry to the United States. In legal terms, the children “entered without inspection,” likely making them unlawfully present in the United States at that time and to this day. Getting a green card for these clients is exceedingly difficult.
Another adoptive family applied for a tourist visa for children whom they claimed were coming to visit nonexistent grandparents. The parents then adopted the children in state court, but to this day both of them lack US citizenship. One is now more than 50 years old. In another of my current cases, an adoptive mother was calculated and honest about why the family chose to use a temporary tourist visa to bring their prospective adoptive daughter to the United States, writing in the child’s baby book that a tourist visa “was a lot easier and cheaper.” To secure the tourist visa, a foreign adoption facilitator falsely claimed the child was his relative.
Other parents (i.e., parents of my clients) have used temporary visas to “rescue” children from humanitarian crises, (which continue today for children in countries like Ukraine or Afghanistan), though in reality the ultimate purpose is to adopt the children once they are present in the United States. The recent case of a child removed from Afghanistan and adopted by a US Marine in the United States—going against the positions of the United States Department of State and the Afghan government— is one of the latest examples of abuses that continue to occur in intercountry adoption when parents believe they must “move heaven and earth” to adopt vulnerable children.
I also represent a Haitian-born adoptee who, like Jonas Hubley, was disabled and brought to the United States on a temporary visa for medical care. While she was later adopted by US citizen parents in state court, her adoptive parents never secured a green card for her. Today, she is in her thirties; the only option for her is to obtain Temporary Protective Status as a Haitian national, something that must be renewed every few years and does not place her on a path to US citizenship.
In each of these cases—like the Hubleys—the parents completed their children’s adoptions in state court, where judges are not versed in intercountry adoption and generally do not ask about (nor have the authority to enforce) international conventions or US immigration law. In each case—and this is again true of the Hubleys—the parents either did not do what should have happened long ago or they started the legal immigration process so late in the game that it created an immigration crisis for the child. While the Hubleys are at least trying to fix things at the last minute and to secure a green card for their child, a green card has become a nearly impossible goal for many of my clients, who now live under the radar in the United States, fearful of being found out and deported.
There is likely far more to the Hubley story than what is being disclosed in the Hubley’s savvy social media campaign and $10,000+ GoFundMe effort, including how the matter became an immigration crisis for Jonas. That is, while the story his adoptive parents have presented relies on a familiar adoption industry complaint—that the US government and its red tape stands in the way of fulfilling intercountry adoptions—I have serious doubts about the allegation of government malfeasance in this case. Rather, this matter appears to involve familiar shortcuts that adoptive parents have used for decades. When called on it, parents simply say the process was too complicated to understand—which we always seem ready to accept as an explanation.
There’s likely good reason that US immigration officials and the US Department of State are scrutinizing Jonas Hubley’s immigration application. After all, his entry to the US—combined with a state court adoption—worked to bypass critical international protocols for intercountry adoptees. Moreover, from all appearances (though the full story is not revealed) the Hubleys did not pursue Jonas’s green card until recently. Posts about Jonas’s immigration status do not appear on their social media feeds until December 2023, shortly after the USCIS declined what appears to be a haphazard application for Jonas’s green card. Indeed, the Hubleys appear to have failed to file, until just last week, a critical required form as part of the immigration process, a form that any immigration attorney would have done long ago as part of an application for a green card. Ultimately, the crisis impacting Jonas today is not of the US government’s making. Rather, in this instance it appears self-created by the Hubleys, borne of the problems that I have seen with adoptive parents who choose shortcuts to facilitate intercountry adoptions. For that, no social media blitz can help.
Acquiring US Citizenship
Under current US immigration law, intercountry adoptees can “acquire” US citizenship through their US citizen parents, so long as they meet four core requirements, all of which must occur before the age of eighteen. Those requirements include:
Born after February 27, 1983
Current law, known as the Child Citizenship Act (CCA), applies only to intercountry adopted people who were under the age of 18 on or after February 27, 2001, the effective date of the Act (put another way, the adopted child must have been born on or after February 28, 1983). This is the biggest loophole in current law, and it has denied US citizenship to tens of thousands of adoptees who were too old at the time of current law. Today, these older adoptees must apply for citizenship through naturalization—unless their adoptive naturalized them while they were children.
Is a legal permanent resident (i.e., has a green card)
The Hubleys case demonstrates what happens if an adopted person does not enter the country as a legal permanent resident, thereafter receiving a green card. If a child enters on a nonimmigrant visa—such as a humanitarian or visitor visa—they are not eligible for US citizenship until they secure a green card, which must occur before the age of 18.
Completes a full and final adoption
A full and final adoption must occur either in the country of birth/origin or in the United States. If no adoption occurs, US citizenship is not acquired through the alleged adoptive parents.
In the custody of adoptive parent(s) for at least two years
The intercountry adoptee must be in the legal and physical custody of the US citizen parents for at least two years. Often, this is shown through school and other enrollment or official records.