Homeland chief is asked to block adoption flights

Pacific Islanders brought to U.S. to give up babies in violation of Marshalls law

January 08, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Three key senators are calling on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to block the practice of flying pregnant mothers from the Marshall Islands to Hawaii and other U.S. locations to give up their newborns for adoption.

In a letter sent to Ridge on Tuesday, the three senators noted recent amendments to the Compact of Free Association that were intended to halt the traffic. The agreement governs relations between the United States and the Marshall Islands. The changes were signed into law Dec. 17 by President Bush.

"We look forward to your assurances that procedures and practices are in place to properly implement [the law] and prevent the circumvention of the compact's intent," the letter says. It was signed by Sens. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees compact matters; Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the panel; and Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and committee member.

The letter follows a Sun series in November that described how adoption agencies have flown dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to Hawaii, Oklahoma and Utah to give up their babies despite a 2-year-old law in the former U.S. trust territory that outlaws the practice.

Americans have been paying fees of up to $30,000 to adopt children from the island nation while birth mothers - solicited by facilitators employed by adoption agencies - have been paid up to $100 a week and provided with food and lodging in the United States until they relinquished their babies.

The series sparked an investigation by Hawaii's state attorney general into possible Medicaid fraud. Birth mothers are typically enrolled in the government-financed health program by adoption agencies, which are being investigated for allegedly double-billing adoptive parents for the mothers' medical expenses.

In their letter to Ridge, whose agency has jurisdiction over entry into the United States, the senators said the recent amendments to the compact were intended to allow adoptions from the Marshall Islands by U.S. citizens, but only when in compliance with both U.S. and Marshallese law.

While Marshall Islanders are generally allowed entry to the United States without a visa, the exemption does not apply in adoption cases, the senators noted. Existing U.S. law and the revised compact require that Marshallese coming to the United States for the purposes of adoption first obtain a visa.

"The privilege of visa-free entry into the U.S. was NOT intended as a way to circumvent the protections for adopted children that are built into the Immigration and Nationality Act," the letter says, adding that the provisions were intended to preclude the practice of flying birth mothers to the United States without a visa.

Aides to Ridge declined to comment yesterday, saying the secretary would issue his response directly to the senators.

The letter appears to contradict the assertion of a key State Department official who was the chief U.S. negotiator on the revised compact. Albert V. Short, a retired Army colonel, told The Sun last year that there was nothing that could be done to halt the practice of flying birth mothers to the United States.

Sen. Alik J. Alik, a member of the Marshall Islands Congress, said yesterday that he was pleased that U.S. officials appear to be finally taking steps to halt adoptions that violate Marshallese law.

"I'm interested in having it stopped completely," Alik said, adding that he plans to meet soon with law enforcement officials in the island nation to urge them to take further steps to enforce the law. Alik was one of the key supporters of the Marshall Islands adoption law.

Under that statute, passed in 2002, adoptions in the Marshalls are required to go through a newly created central adoption authority that began operating Oct. 1. The agency is now reviewing the applications of several adoption agencies that are seeking approval to operate in the islands. The law makes it illegal to solicit birth mothers, a practice that had become common. It also prohibits arranging for a birth mother to leave the islands to complete an adoption.

The Marshall Islands adoption law was drafted with the assistance of Jini Roby, a Utah attorney and professor who served as an unpaid adviser. Roby and the head of the Marshalls adoption agency, Michael Jenkins, are scheduled to appear in Honolulu in February for a panel discussion to inform public officials and others about the law and past abuses.

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