The Case for Joon Hyun Kim
Category/Issue: News, Volume 34 No. 09
BY KEVIN MINH ALLEN
The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 took effect in early 2001 with much
fanfare coming from the adoption community because it automatically
confers U.S. citizenship on adopted children once their adoptions are
legally finalized. In spite of this, transnational adoptees who were
adopted before this law took effect, and had not become naturalized
citizens, represent some of the most vulnerable immigrants in the
United States. Unbeknownst to them, and most likely their adoptive
parents, their immigration status is tenuous, even though they grew
up believing they were fully recognized members of American society.
Kevin Minh Allen reports on the story of Joon Hyun Kim.
The visitation room inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma
is as stark as anyone could imagine such a place to be hard plastic
chairs, dirty plaster walls and hushed monologues being transmitted
by phone to the inmates on the other side of the thick soundproof
glass. The long, white room elicits an air of secrecy, mixed with
loneliness and isolation. It is within this private-contracted
facility that I met Joon Hyun Kim, a tall, lanky, thoroughly
unassuming man of 25.
He is not the first adult adoptee with a criminal record that the
government wants to deport back to his birth country. But, Kim's case
once again illustrates the fateful convergence of decisions made and
not made by adoptive parents and adoptees, who are eventually left to
confront the issues of ethnicity and nationality by themselves and
without much guidance.
As soon as I saw Kim, his body language spoke volumes. It told a
story of stoic resignation in the face of bureaucratic machinations
and acceptance of the fact that his freedom lies in other people's
hands. He's also had a lot of time to think about how his life could
have turned out if childhood circumstances had been different, but
that also he has to atone for the mistakes he has made as a young
However, the biggest mistake that he will have to live down for the
rest of his life was not of his own doing: his adoptive parents
forgot their responsibility to have Kim made a naturalized U.S.
citizen. This process should have been second nature to his adoptive
parents, seeing that his mother worked for Holt International, a well-
known and respected Northwest adoption agency.
All this time, though, Kim thought he was an American citizen. And,
why wouldn't he? Adopted from South Korea at the age of six, he
learned English, was nourished with American food and did everything
that most American boys do growing up.
Things started falling apart, though, when Kim rebelled against the
strict religious sensibilities of his adoptive parents. His mother
was particularly punitive toward him for not excelling at academics
like his older sister, who was his parents' biological child. She
took away any pleasure he had found while living in a small town in
A short-lived reprieve was offered Kim when his parents allowed him
to stay at a farm owned by friends of theirs in South Bend, Ore. for
the summer. While there, he helped with the upkeep of the farm,
enjoying the physical activity and the much less stringent religious
observations. Kim liked being there so much that he asked his parents
if he could stay in order to make a fresh start; his parents' friends
were willing to take him in. Unfortunately, his parents wouldn't hear
of it and told him he would have to continue living with them.
A year later, everything came to a head, and because of his mother's
actions something Kim still doesn't totally understand, nor can
forgive he had to leave his adoptive family of four years and live
with a foster family for several months. At the age of 13, he moved
in with his adoptive aunt and stayed with her until he turned 18.
After Kim left his aunt's care, he picked the wrong crowd to
befriend. He became addicted to drugs, and stole things in order to
support his habit. In 2004, he was convicted of three counts of first-
degree theft. He spent nine months in county jail and was
subsequently placed on probation. Due to a lapse in reporting to his
probation officer, Kim was picked up by the police and fingerprinted.
It was at this time that, to his complete surprise, he found out he
was not a U.S. citizen.
Kim now has a little daughter, and he will make it clear in the
upcoming deportation hearing this month that he is free from drugs
and wants to do right by his daughter and her mother. He has put his
old ways far behind him and simply wants a chance to become a
productive member of society.
One of Kim's earliest memories of his first few years growing up with
his birthmother in Korea besides her constant verbal and emotional
abuse was the overwhelming feeling of coldness in the house. Many
years later, in a much different country, he still has that same cold
feeling. But, he's not giving up on the thought that he will one day
see the sun again no matter where he ends up.