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Waiting For Aaron

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  • Sunny Jo
    Waiting For Aaron Lowell Billings and Bonnie Ewen worry about the future of their oldest son, Korean adoptee Aaron Billings, who is currently in an INS
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 22, 2003
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      Waiting For Aaron

      Lowell Billings and Bonnie Ewen worry about the future of their oldest
      son, Korean adoptee Aaron Billings, who is currently in an INS detention
      facility and could be deported to Korea

      By Corina Knoll
      Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi



      CORONADO, CALIF. — In a quaint neighborhood of homes lined with
      immaculate lawns, Bonnie Ewen is watering the grass in front of her
      brick-red house on Avenue B.
      It’s a beautiful, bright Saturday afternoon. She gives a half-smile, but
      she’s clearly not at ease.

      Her husband, Lowell Billings, is a white-bearded, forthright man who is
      eager to begin the interview right away, but just then, the phone rings.
      Bonnie answers, and by the way her eyes redden and her voice grows
      quiet, it’s obvious that she is speaking with her oldest son, Aaron, who
      is calling collect from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
      detention facility in San Diego.

      Aaron’s voice sounds like a young kid’s. Even though he is 28 years old,
      it is not hard to imagine a boy calling mom and dad from summer camp.
      After a brief 60 seconds of conversation that doesn’t yield much in the
      way of information, Aaron is whisked away for lunch. The only window of
      opportunity to speak to him for this article has now closed, as the INS
      fails to answer our repeated requests for an interview.

      On Sept. 15, 2000, Aaron Billings was charged with possession of
      marijuana with intent to sell. While serving time for this misdemeanor,
      an INS purge found that Aaron was not an U.S. citizen.

      Since then, Aaron’s parents have wondered if their son, who has lived in
      the United States for most of his life, will be forced to board a plane
      to Korea, a land completely foreign to his American-grown soul.

      ***



      LEFT : All in the family — Lowell, Bonnie, Greg and Aaron in 1985.
      RIGHT-TOP : Aaron with younger brother Greg. RIGHT-BOTTOM : Aaron at 18
      years old in his NJROTC uniform.
      “[Aaron] does not speak Korean, nor does he have any Korean family,
      relatives, or contacts. In light of his situation, I respectfully
      request your office to reconsider this case solely on humanitarian
      grounds. [Aaron’s] story has raised a deep concern from the Korean
      American community for his future and well-being; your compassion and
      goodwill in this matter would be greatly appreciated by many.”
      — South Korean Consul Bon Yul Kou, in a letter to the INS

      In 1978, Bonnie and Lowell adopted 3-year-old Aaron from Seoul through
      Children’s Home Society, an adoption agency.

      When Aaron’s birth certificate arrived in the mail shortly after, it
      read that his birth city was San Diego, Calif., where Bonnie and Lowell
      lived. So the couple assumed that Aaron’s immigrant status had been
      changed, and never thought to have Aaron naturalized to become an U.S.
      citizen.

      “We went through a lot of processes, and we were young. I was 23,”
      recalls Lowell.

      “We were going through a lot of excitement and a process we were not
      familiar with. We received this [birth certificate] from the San Diego
      County, which said he was born in San Diego County. So our assumption
      was, ‘Gee, we’ve adopted him through the Children’s Home Society, and
      they’ve naturalized him.’”

      It was a discrepancy that was somehow overlooked throughout Aaron’s
      childhood.



      According to his parents, Aaron was a happy kid who often had trouble
      realizing the consequences of his actions. He was enrolled in special
      education classes because of learning disabilities, and he struggled
      with cognitive skills and expressing language. Aaron was a hyperactive
      child and only understood things if he experienced them firsthand. Even
      as he matured, he still seemed to maintain a childlike sensibility.

      “He was sort of an immature kid, kind of a Peter Pan kid that never grew
      up,” says Lowell.

      Lowell and Bonnie realized their oldest son’s limitations and didn’t
      allow him certain responsibilities, including getting a driver’s
      license. Perhaps if they had, Aaron’s alien status would have been
      discovered sooner. Although inexplicably, he was issued a government ID
      card, an U.S. passport, a Social Security card, and was able to join the
      Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps without ever being
      questioned.

      His parents say Aaron went through life with a positive outlook, but his
      perceptions were off-key, which meant he tended to fall in with the
      wrong people and make some bad decisions.

      “Aaron’s biggest strength was his acceptance of everyone,” says Lowell.
      “It didn’t matter whether you were tall, short, skinny or fat, Asian
      American, African American or Hispanic. It didn’t matter whether you
      were handicapped or able-bodied, Aaron just wanted to be everybody’s
      friend.

      “He didn’t pass judgment on people, and as a result, he’d often
      associate himself with people who maybe didn’t have real strong core
      values. He was just very needy in some sense in terms of friendships and
      relationships, and he didn’t question context,” says Lowell.

      After high school, Aaron held various odd jobs and took some classes at
      a community college before heading to Idaho on a whim.

      “He took off on his own, and we kind of let him go. Figuring he’s 21, we
      can’t rope him in the rest of his life,” says Lowell. “That’s when
      things started to fall apart.”

      It wasn’t until a year had passed when Aaron finally called his parents
      to let them know he had served 11 months in an Arizona state prison and
      needed a ride home. According to Lowell, Aaron had hitchhiked with a man
      who turned out to be driving a stolen vehicle. The two were pulled over
      and the driver escaped, but Aaron stayed, pleaded guilty and went to
      prison. While incarcerated, the INS did a random search for illegal
      aliens, but once again, Aaron’s citizenship was never questioned.

      After being picked up by Bonnie and Lowell, Aaron lived at home with his
      parents, worked part-time and often hung out at Ocean Beach. It was
      there that he sold marijuana to an undercover police officer. At first
      considered a misdemeanor, the charge became more serious once the INS
      identified Aaron as an illegal alien.


      Lowell and Bonnie wait to enter the INS detention facility in San Diego
      to visit with their son, Aaron.

      “One thing I don’t do too much is talk about him anymore with friends.
      Because they just — they just can’t conceive of what’s happening. And
      I’m tired of talking about it and it just keeps going on. So I just
      don’t mention it anymore. I guess my way of dealing with it is to just
      deal with it. Just deal with it.”
      — Bonnie Ewen

      On April 2, 2001, Aaron was transferred from the San Diego County jail
      to the INS detention facility, where he has since been known as Sung Ho
      Kwon, the Korean name given to him by the staff at the orphanage.

      According to one of Aaron’s attorneys, Carl Balediata, the misdemeanor
      conviction became an aggravated felony because of Aaron’s alien status.
      This is due to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
      Responsibility Act, which has harsh repercussions for non-citizens who
      commit crimes. The act expanded the definition of aggravated felony to
      include drug possession and made detention mandatory for an alien with a
      criminal conviction.

      Intended to close loopholes in past immigration policies and practices,
      the act has had an unexpected side effect on other international
      adoptees. Brazilian adoptee Joao Herbert and Thai adoptee John Gaul, two
      men who grew up in the United States but were never naturalized, each
      committed a felony and were deported to their birth countries within the
      last few years.

      Even the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, a law that allows adopted
      children to forego naturalization and automatically become U.S.
      citizens, does not protect Aaron because the act is not retroactive.

      Aaron’s case went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the case
      was dismissed because the 1996 act took away the federal court’s
      jurisdiction in contested deportation cases.

      Still, despite the case’s dismissal last October, Aaron has remained at
      the detention facility because the Korean Consulate General’s office has
      not yet complied with the INS.

      In an excerpt from a letter dated Aug. 29, 2002, Consul Bon Yul Kou
      responded to the INS request for travel documents with the following:

      “[Aaron] does not speak Korean, nor does he have any Korean family,
      relatives, or contacts. In light of his situation, I respectfully
      request your office to reconsider this case solely on humanitarian
      grounds. [Aaron’s] story has raised a deep concern from the Korean
      American community for his future and well-being; your compassion and
      goodwill in this matter would be greatly appreciated by many.”

      In violation of the law, Aaron has been held at the detention facility
      for over 90 days since his final appeal. His attorneys are now
      attempting to have him released under what is called an “order of
      supervision.” This permits him to be released into the custody of his
      parents, but without the rights of a citizen. Among other things, Aaron
      would be unable to vote, attend school or travel outside the country.
      The alternatives are becoming a lifer at the detention center or, if the
      Korean Consulate General complies, deportation.

      In the next few weeks, Aaron’s attorneys will submit documents to the
      INS that attempt to prove Aaron’s moral character and that his release
      is in the best interest of his family. It may prove difficult for the
      courts, however, to look past Aaron’s criminal record.

      “It’s a toss-up,” says Balediata of his chances. “A 50-50 shot.”

      Lowell and Bonnie are angry at the system, but ultimately they blame
      themselves.

      “It’s really us,” says Lowell. “We didn’t close the immigration. Aaron
      couldn’t do it as a young child, and we didn’t finalize that piece of
      the adoption process.”

      ***

      Bonnie and Lowell have hundreds of photos of their two sons during
      camping trips in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, vacations in Mexico, time
      spent at their house in Arizona, surfing and fishing.

      Aaron’s younger brother, Greg, 20, remembers how his older brother was
      always willing to spend time with him, despite their eight-year age
      difference.

      “I didn’t really realize until maybe later in high school how valuable
      Aaron was to me growing up, and how lucky I was to have a brother who
      would drop anything he was doing to come play with me,” says Greg.

      Now a junior at the University of Arizona, Greg sees Aaron about once a
      month. The desolate surroundings at the detention facility and the tense
      circumstances, however, put a strain on their meetings.

      “It’s hard to talk about what he’s doing on the inside because it’s the
      same old story every time. Nothing goes on in there,” says Greg. “We try
      to be very optimistic with him, not that he has a problem staying
      optimistic, but I know at times he gets scared.

      “The past few times my dad’s kind of tried to be very straightforward
      with him, and it’s really hard to see him trying to cope with that,”
      says Greg.

      “We’ve talked about if it happens, then we’ll be spending vacations over
      there in Korea,” says Bonnie.

      Greg, who has spent summers in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, has even
      thought about moving to Mexico so that Aaron, who could not return to
      the United States if deported but could immigrate to Mexico, could live
      with him and be on the same continent as their parents.

      For almost two years, Bonnie and Lowell have been spending their
      Saturdays at the detention facility.

      “It’s like going to church,” says Bonnie matter-of-factly. “It’s
      something that we need to do.

      “One thing I don’t do too much is talk about him anymore with friends,”
      says Bonnie, who is a third-grade teacher. “Because they just — they
      just can’t conceive of what’s happening. And I’m tired of talking about
      it, and it just keeps going on. So I just don’t mention it anymore. I
      guess my way of dealing with it is to just deal with it. Just deal with
      it.”

      Lowell, a superintendent with the Chula Vista Elementary School
      District, chooses to speak about his son as much as possible, making
      connections with anyone and everyone, hoping it will open some doorways.

      “I’ve never run into anything in life, an obstacle or barrier, that I
      couldn’t get through,” says Lowell. “I grew up in tenement housing in
      Compton. I had dreams for myself. My parents were not college graduates.
      So life has always been about opportunities and the ability to work
      through things.”

      ***

      Lowell and Bonnie should have had Aaron naturalized. Aaron should have
      steered clear of illegal activity. Children’s Home Society should have
      issued the correct birth certificate.

      These are the harsh “should haves” that are easy to point out now that
      the consequences have been made manifest.

      But who doesn’t feel for parents who are about to lose their son. Or for
      a man who might be left on the shores of a foreign country, forced to
      experience abandonment all over again.

      For now, it is an unsure time for Aaron and his family, who fear the
      worst but pray for the best.

      “No matter what happens, he’s not dead, he’s not sick, he’s not
      terminally ill,” says Lowell. “He’s got an education, he’s healthy, he’s
      an able-bodied person, so you can look at it in that context.

      “The selfish part is we don’t want him to go because he’s ours.”

      http://www.koreamjournal.com/FeatureStories3.asp
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