HomeKorean AmericanAdult Adoptees fight to get citizenship

Adult Adoptees fight to get citizenship

By Lia Reichman, AsAmNews Staff Writer

In 1964, an American couple flew to South Korea to adopt a three-month-old baby, who they named Emily Warnecke. Even though they used an adoption agency, they went to the U.S. Embassy to finish the adoption proceedings. There they were told that because their daughter had been abandoned, she automatically would be a naturalized U.S. citizen. It wasn’t until many years later that they found out that was not the case.

This scenario is one that many others face and the reason why many in the adoption community want to get the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021 (ACA) passed in Congress. Since 1948 over 300,000 children have been adopted internationally by U.S. citizen parents, yet thousands are without citizenship through an oversight of the Child Citizenship Act (CCA) of 2000. 18,603 Korean American adoptees alone are without citizenship, according to the Korean Health Ministry. 

The CCA of 2000, which actually went into effect the following year, was not retroactive and only allowed those who were under the age of 18 at the time of its passage to receive automatic citizenship.

If the ACA becomes law, adoptees who were over the age of 18 when the CCA of 2000 was passed would then get U.S. citizenship and the benefits that come with it.

Adoption attorney Genie Miller Gillespie told AsAmNews that the parents of adopted children had to apply for their children to gain citizenship before the CCA.

Adoptees without citizenship likely received permanent legal residence status, which Miller Gillespie said allows people to receive “most of the same benefits, but it’s not ironclad.”

“So if something happens, like for example, if you do commit a more serious crime, they can choose to deport you,” she said. 

Warnecke herself only found out she was not a U.S. citizen after getting in trouble with the law and has been under threat of deportation since 2000.

Miller Gillespie said it “makes no sense” why the Adoptee Citizenship Act hasn’t passed, especially as it is a “nonpartisan issue”. The bill was introduced by House of Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA) and John Curtis (R-UT) and Senators Blunt (R-MO), Hirono (D-HI), Collins (R-ME), Klobuchar (D-MN), Murkowski (R-AK), and Duckworth (D-IL)

“It’s completely unfair to these people who were infants, most of them, when they came here. So through no fault of their own, they’re not currently U.S. citizens even though they grew up believing they were, their families grew up believing they were,” Miller Gillespie said to AsAmNews. “There was no reason why they shouldn’t be [citizens] just because of the sort of misfortune of being older, [and] that they were adopted prior to 2001.”

Advocates are also worried that because Congress is in a “lame-duck” session, one right before the new incoming class comes in, this act will be set aside for other higher-priority issues.

Despite her numerous attempts over the years to try and get the Adoptee Citizenship Act passed, including writing to presidents, Warnecke has been unsuccessful and doesn’t understand why.

“It would mean a lot to me [if it passed],” Warnecke said to AsAmNews. “It would mean that I will be able to vote. It will mean that I would get my benefits…it would mean a lot to be treated like any other person in the U.S. and not being treated unfairly because I was adopted.”

At the age of 48 Warnecke found out she had a severe spinal disease. She has since been unable to work and is unable to receive social security benefits and Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) because she is not a citizen. She has had to rely on family members to help with her expenses.

“I wish I could go back to work…I didn’t plan on this happening in my life, that I was gonna get disabled…because I don’t know what runs in my family,” Warnecke said.

Daniel Wilson’s Story

Although Daniel Wilson found out he wasn’t a U.S. citizen after enlisting in the military, it didn’t “hit home” that he wasn’t considered an “American” until after he committed a crime and was in custody, facing deportation. After finishing his short sentence in prison, Wilson was deported at the age of 23. 

“At that time…my parents abandoned me pretty much because of the crime,” Wilson said. “So I was pretty alone…it was kind of despair, lost [and] abandoned–those are the words that come to my mind”

Wilson was adopted at the age of nine from Brazil, alongside a family member, and had faced many hardships while living on the streets and in orphanages.

Because of the nature of his crime, Wilson now faces a lifetime ban from the U.S. and is unable to ever visit his adoptive family. 

Courtesy: Rachel Koelzer.

At the time of the interview, Wilson’s wife and two children were visiting his adoptive mother, Susan, in the U.S.

“It’s devastating. I mean, maybe that’s a strong word…[but] we’re all over the place. You know, we’re going to Chucky Cheese, and we’re going to the trampoline park and we’re doing all of these things and he should be here,” Susan said. “It’s sad. It’s really sad. I don’t think the girls even know…at some level, I wonder if they wonder why Daddy can’t ever come. It’s really hard.”

After his deportation, Wilson and his mother didn’t speak for 12 years before reuniting at his wedding in Brazil. For both of them they had to heal and learn from the situation.

“[I’d] like to get the message across just how crazy it is that I adopted two boys at the same time, from the same country. And one became a citizen based on President Clinton’s law, and the other was excluded because he was just over the age limit. It just tore our family apart,” Susan said.

She added they didn’t even know how old Daniel was when they were adopting. He and his sibling were both assigned the same birthday, but on different years, so Wilson may have been younger than 18 when the CCA was passed. 

Wilson said when he was deported he had “no money”, “no clothes”, he had “nothing in Brazil.”

Wilson relied on his adoption agency in Brazil and the church that backed it for support as he adjusted to Brazil, and also helped him get a job as an English language teacher. He had to rely on favors before he was able to start making money, but even after becoming a teacher he still couldn’t “afford to live on my own” or “to take care of myself.” 

“The hardest [challenge] to be honest, [is] feeling like you don’t belong. I still have those moments. ‘Where I’m like, man, this is not where I’m supposed to be, this is not me,’”

For a “long, long time” he was scared of Brazil and even nowadays doesn’t consider himself to be Brazilian.

Wilson said the passage of the ACA wouldn’t change his life in terms of moving to live in the U.S., as he puts it “I have nothing there.” However, it would be “correcting this wrong” of deporting adoptees, who never received citizenship through the CCA, like Wilson who still thinks of himself as American.

“And when [my mom] got COVID I mean, I stayed depressed for like a week because [I thought] my mom’s gonna die and I can’t even go there to visit her, I can’t even go to her funeral,” Wilson said. “I just want to be there for them when they get old too…they’re never gonna live here. It’s like man I can’t even be by their side, I can’t take care of my parents when they get old.”

Both Warnecke and Wilson work with the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) to help advocate for the Adoptee Citizenship Act by sharing their experiences with others.

Wilson noted that organizations like NAKASEC are able to create networks and push for the passage of the ACA, but the movement also needs to come from politicians and those in power.

“People need to get up. They need to call their senators and they need to voice their [opinions] and say ‘What about these international adoptees that did not get their citizenship because of their age that are now impacted, or were deported and served in our U.S. military,’” Warnecke said. “All Asians need to come together and say you know what, this is wrong. We need to step up to the plate.”

AsAmNews is incorporated in the state of California as Asian American Media, Inc, a non-profit with 501c3 status. Check out our new TikTok account. Find additional content on  Instagram , Twitter and Facebook.  Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story, or making a tax-deductible donation. We are committed to the highest ethical standards in journalism. Please report any typos or errors to info at AsAmNews dot com.


  1. Please pass Adoptee Citizenship Act, not fair that by a Date, like mentioned above, you were not granted citizenship.😭👪👫💔 There is no reason why legal Adoptees shouldn’t be [citizens] just because of the sort of misfortune of being older, [and] that were legally adopted prior to 2001

  2. Please pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act, Please with All my heart,♥️we want to return home🏠🎄and Reunite with Our Families🙏🙏🙏😭💔

  3. Adoption was expensive – for “All the Legally Adoptees”* Adoption is Expensive due to the process of legally adopting a baby, it requires the involvement of attorneys, social workers, physicians, government administrators, adoption specialists, counselors and more. Nowadays, with an agency, you can expect to spend between $30,000 and $60,000, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. It’s slightly less expensive to pursue an independent adoption, which involves working with an attorney. That process ranges in cost from $25,000 to $45,000.Sep 1, 2022, ….so “Please Pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act” …🙏


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