It seemed like a nightmare right out of Kafka. In late 2007 and early 2008, Americans with their adopted babies in arms, or pictures of babies to come, were being stonewalled by faceless U.S. bureaucrats. The U.S. government refused to issue visas that would allow those babies to come home from Vietnam -- and wouldn't explain why.
Thirteen families, supported by dozens of other parents-to-be, desperately did what they could to attract publicity, calling in the New York Times, ABC News, and members of Congress. They launched campaigns on the web, sent petitions to friends and neighbors, and barraged the relevant offices with pleas for help. And still, for months, the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refused to issue their babies the requisite visas -- for reasons that seemed irrelevant. One couple from Queens, New York, said they were told that the baby they had legally adopted in Vietnam would not be able to come home with them for what they called a "bewilderingly minute point": A Tam Ky Orphanage guard in Vietnam's Quang Nam province had failed to note the child's arrival in his logbook.
But inside their fog of secrecy, the faceless bureaucrats were also agonizing about the well-being of the children and their families. Based on hundreds of pages of documents received via Freedom of Information Act requests, this article gives a never-before-seen glimpse at how the State Department discovered what it believed to be a gray market in "adoptable" babies and debated what to do about it, trying each of its inadequate tools in turn.
According to these internal documents, the State Department was confident it had discovered systemic nationwide corruption in Vietnam -- a network of adoption agency representatives, village officials, orphanage directors, nurses, hospital administrators, police officers, and government officials who were profiting by paying for, defrauding, coercing, or even simply stealing Vietnamese children from their families to sell them to unsuspecting Americans. And yet, as these documents reveal, U.S. officials in Hanoi did not have the right tools to shut down the infant peddlers while allowing the truly needed adoptions to continue. Understanding how little the State Department and USCIS could do, despite how hard they tried, helps reveal what these U.S. government agencies need to respond more effectively in the current adoption hot spots, Nepal and Ethiopia -- and in whatever country might be struck by adoption profiteering next.
Adoption from Vietnam: the background
Between 2006 and 2009, Americans adopted 2,220 children from Vietnam. In 2007, USCIS and the State Department issued 800 adoption visas and attempted to deny only 20. And yet on Sept. 1, 2008, the United States felt it had no choice but to not renew the bilateral agreement that allowed Americans to adopt Vietnamese children, thereby shutting down American adoptions from Vietnam.
It wasn't the first time the State Department had been confronted by corrupt Vietnamese adoption practices. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Westerners were adopting thousands of Vietnamese-born children every year amid reports that children were being bought, coerced, defrauded, or even kidnapped from their birth families. Pressured by the West, the government of Vietnam tried to reform its system. It sharply curtailed adoptions -- the United States banned them from Vietnam entirely -- and eventually prosecuted, deported, and otherwise shut down some of the suspected perpetrators. Noting the progress, the United States signed a three-year bilateral agreement with Vietnam in 2005, complete with safeguards against corruption, so that adoptions between the two countries could again proceed.
But as soon as adoptions resumed, these documents reveal, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi noticed a suspicious uptick in "abandoned" infants in orphanages that had contracts with international adoption agencies. "Orphanages and hospitals throughout Vietnam all report that prior to 2005 there were very few abandonments at their facilities, today these facilities may have as many as 15 purported abandonments a month. These abandonments are shams designed to obscure the child's true origins," Ambassador Michael Michalak cabled back to Washington in January 2008. "At Hospital A in [redacted location] abandonments are now a weekly occurrence." Other orphanages continued to host their traditional complement of older and special needs children, with few or no infants and toddlers.
Unfortunately, by law, the U.S. government had only three imprecise tools to respond to its suspicions about Vietnamese adoptions. First, State Department and USCIS officers could personally investigate the circumstances behind Americans' applications for "orphan visas." But that was time-consuming, and it elicited vehement objections from the Vietnamese government. Second, U.S. consular officers and diplomats could pressure Vietnam to live up to the 2005 Memorandum of Agreement and crack down on unethical adoptions. But the U.S. Embassy came to believe that Vietnam would not take action. Third, the United States could stop accepting adoptions from Vietnam entirely. But that blunt tool would stop legal adoptions together with corrupt ones, and, these documents show, the United States hesitated to wield it.