Tears, diapers - and 75,000 new US citizens

A federal law that took effect yesterday grants automatic citizenship to adopted kids born abroad.

Mary Dutczak skipped school yesterday. But she's hardly in trouble.

Yesterday morning, the 14-year-old put on a new blue-and-white dress and journeyed from her home in Boylston, Mass., to Boston's historic Faneuil Hall for a special ceremony - a celebration of her new status as a United States citizen.

Until a year ago, Mary had lived in an orphanage in Nanjing, China. Now, under a federal law that took effect at midnight Monday, Mary and 75,000 other adopted children born abroad have become US citizens - just by getting out of bed.

Is she excited? "Yes, because we can vote for the president," said Mary, who carried a Chinese flag at the ceremony, one of many emotional events held across the country yesterday. "And yes, because I have a family."

The law, sponsored by Massachusetts Rep. William Delahunt, grants automatic citizenship to adopted children, provided one of their adoptive parents or legal guardians is a US citizen. About 20,000 such children are brought into the United States every year, and more are adopted by US families living abroad.

The law, supporters say, removes an unnecessary burden and sense of insecurity from parents, who may have spent up to $25,000 to adopt. The Immigration and Naturalization Service takes an average of two years for citizenship processing.

"This is a very useful and very important act," says Peter Gibbs, director of the Center for Adoption Research and Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. He says the law will provide a far greater sense of comfort to families who adopt and has practical implications as well: Becoming a US citizen will make it easier for the kids to travel abroad when they're old enough to do so.

For lawyer Maryann Civitello, it provides a greater sense of security about her daughter Dominika's future. Ms. Civitello has been alarmed by tales of adopted children being deported after committing a crime.

"This eases my mind, because now I don't have to worry about that," says the Newton, Mass., resident, standing on the cobblestone walk outside Faneuil Hall. Not that her blonde, Russian-born daughter shows any signs of turning to a life of crime. The 10-year-old, peering out through oval, silver-rimmed glasses, appeared so overwhelmed by the day's events that she was unable to say a word.

Maya Valianti-Smith has two reasons to celebrate. Not only did she become a US citizen yesterday, she also turned 3. At least, as near as her parents can figure out.

They adopted Maya two years ago from a border orphanage in Mexicali, Mexico, where the baby was brought after she was found in the forest. Authorities believe her parents may have died while trying to cross the border. Maya had survived alone for as long as three days.

For her mom, Carmel, Maya represents a lifelong dream. The resident of Ipswich, Mass., and former Peace Corps volunteer had tried for years to adopt from abroad. She and her husband had applied to adopt a Nepalese baby, but the weekend before it was final, the country shut down international adoptions to the US.

"It's huge, it's amazing," Carmel said of the day's ceremony, while her daughter admired her black patent leather shoes from a stroller.

One reason the law was changed now is because international adoptions are booming. America adopts more children from abroad than all other countries combined.

There are several reasons for the growth: The difficulty of adopting infants in the US, concerns about the possible involvement of birth parents when adopting domestically, and a more global sense among Americans about the status of children abroad.

"There has been a growing recognition that this is an important way for American families to be created," Gibbs says.

That was the case for Bill and Julie Dutczak. After they learned they were unable to have children, Julie told friends on their way to China to adopt a child: "If you see someone special, let us know."

The Dutczaks had already adopted two girls when they heard of somebody else special. Mary had lived her whole life in an orphanage in Nanjing. She had one friend, Melody, who was adopted three years ago by friends of the Dutczaks. Before she left the orphanage, Melody promised Mary she would find a home for her. She kept her promise.

Inside the white columns of Faneuil Hall, adorned with portraits of Revolutionary War figures, more flashbulbs were going off than at a movie premiere. Visitors could hardly walk between the rows of folding chairs, thanks to the legions of strollers, diaper bags, and dads with video cameras strewn about.

During the parade of flags, Maya toddled up to the stage carrying a Mexican flag far too big for her tiny hands. Her mother steadied it from behind.

"We have come here to witness that truth," said Representative Delahunt, whose Vietnamese-born daughter became a US citizen in this very building several years earlier, "that there is no difference between children that are born to us and children we adopt."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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