The top adoption official in the Marshall Islands says that, with a new international agreement finally in effect, it is time for state and federal officials in the United States to take aggressive steps to stop the illegal adoption of Marshallese children by Americans.
Michael Jenkins, head of the Central Adoption Authority, said yesterday that without strict enforcement, such adoptions are likely to continue.
This will happen, he warned, despite the signing Saturday of a mandate in the Compact of Free Association governing relations between the United States and the Pacific island nation that requires pregnant Marshallese women to get visas before coming to the United States to give up their newborns for adoption.
The amended agreement was approved by Congress last year and signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 7 in the aftermath of a Sun series on the traffic of Marshallese children.
Under the revised compact, adoptions of Marshall Islands children also must be approved by the island country's adoption agency and its courts.
Laws `being ignored'
U.S. officials stressed that Marshallese citizens, as residents of a former trust territory, will still be able to travel to this country for other reasons without a visa.
U.S. immigration officials are expected to implement procedures in the near future that will allow them to send pregnant women back to the Marshall Islands or prevent their departure from the islands.
Jenkins mentioned recent cases in which pregnant mothers have been flown to Hawaii and Utah to circumvent the island and U.S. laws.
Often, the women sign up with state Medicaid programs, which pay for the delivery of their children. Adoption agencies have been charging adoptive parents between $25,000 and $30,000 for a Marshallese infant.
"Unfortunately, the laws which are in place in Hawaii to protect the welfare, rights and interests of children are being ignored," Jenkins said. "The regulations which govern adoptions in the state of Utah are not being consistently or effectively applied," he added.
In addition to new adoption restrictions, the compact, for the first time, regulates recruiters who sign up residents of the Marshall Islands to work in low-paying jobs in the United States. Recruiters are required to register with the island government and must disclose in advance to the recruits their wages and working conditions, including any deductions that will be made from their pay checks.
Officials of the U.S. Department of Labor insisted on the new requirements after a series of stories in The Sun that detailed how recruiters were often bringing workers to the United States for low-paying jobs, luring them with false promises of education and free airfare back to their island home.
A nearly identical compact with the Federated States of Micronesia also has been approved by the United States, but must be approved by the Micronesian Congress before it will become binding, according to U.S. State Department officials.
Though there have been no reports of adoption abuses in Micronesia, hundreds of residents of that country have been actively recruited for low-wage jobs in nursing homes and amusement parks in the United States.
Jenkins said that limited resources in his country have made it difficult to enforce without U.S. cooperation and assistance.
"Hopefully," he added, "the newly signed compact will usher in access to federal resources. We have already identified two federal grants."
Jini Roby, a Utah law professor who has served as an unpaid consultant to the Marshall Islands government, said the compact implementation should have its biggest impact on the illegal practice of bringing birth mothers to the United States.
"If in the processing for a visa, illegal activity is discovered, two potential things can happen: The perpetrator of any illegal activity could be prosecuted under [Marshallese] law, and the woman could be denied the visa or sent back upon entry into the U.S.," she said.
Anyone trying to circumvent the compact provision on the U.S. side would also have legal liability, she added.
But Jenkins cautioned that it will take time for the full effects of the new law to be felt.
"Even after the compact is fully in place, addressing this crisis must be considered a work in progress, in need of immediate resources," he said.