When you are adopting internationally, you will have to receive permission from immigration to adopt in order for your child to become a US citizen. This is a part of the adoption which is confusing for most parents. (Okay, I know they’re actually all confusing!) But why do you send everything to a lockbox in one state so it can be opened and mailed to a different state? How can you make sure you get the application right the first time so that a Request For Evidence doesn’t slow you down? Everyone wants to get through this part of the process as quickly as possible, but dealing with immigration can cause you to break out into cold sweat. In this blog post I would like to share some information to shed light on this part of the process to make it easier to understand.
I was granted the opportunity to ask some questions of the USCIS Hague Adoptions unit. While I am not permitted to share the transcript, this blog post is a summary of the information which I received.
USCIS is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the government agency which oversees the immigration process. All USCIS officers complete six weeks of training at the immigration academy where they are instructed in topics such as immigration law, fraud and national security, customer service, and upheld to high standards of sensitivity, professionalism, and ethical conduct.
Officers in the Hague Adoptions unit receive additional training on Hague Convention processing. Officers in the adoptions unit handle cases for any Hague country. None of the officers are assigned specifically to China or any other country. While the officers conduct security checks, manage correspondence, and review adoption related petitions and applications, they must make decisions which require them to apply the relevant laws and regulations governing intercountry adoption. The word “adjudication” was used a lot in the responses I received from the USCIS official. The officers are, in a sense, judging your case; weighing the evidence to conclude whether it meets the legal requirements.
What exactly is the lockbox? It’s a central processing area for all immigration applications and petitions. Applications for citizenship through adoption are still immigration applications, so they must be routed through the lockbox, too. A service provider will open the package to sort the mail. The payment will be deposited to the U.S. Treasury, and the application looked over. If it meets the rules, the documents will be scanned and data entered into the system. If your application does not meet the requirements, say you forgot to include a payment, the lockbox service provider will return it to you. Once the lockbox processing is complete, the application files will be sent to the appropriate USCIS service center for field office. In the case of adoptions, they will be sent to the adoptions unit at the National Benefits Center in Overland Park, KS.
You can see this USCIS website for more information on the lockbox, including processing tips and a lockbox support e-mail address.
Once the applications and petitions are received at the National Benefits Center (NBC) the information will be entered into the NBC’s case management system and the necessary background and security checks will be processed. After that is complete, the applications are sent to the Hague Adoptions unit. All applications are processed by the date they were received at the lockbox. USCIS has a public goal of processing applications within 75 days. Applications which require a Request for Evidence (RFE) will not receive a decision as quickly as those which are filed with all required evidence.
While this was not in the information I received from USCIS, I assume that the processing time will depend on the number of applications received and the amount of staff available.
Checking on Your Petition
Many parents in process will call or email to inquire about the status of their petition. If you call the adoption hotline, you will speak to one of the Hague adoption officers, not administrative staff. The officers are assigned to shifts at the call center, so when you call you are not taking their time away from processing applications. They will process applications at other times. I was informed that parents may either call or email as they prefer; the NBC has no preference.
Requests for Evidence
Avoiding an RFE is important because receiving one will delay your approval. Your officer cannot approve your petition until the requested evidence is received. I asked what the most common mistakes parents make when filing the I800a or I800.
Most common mistakes when filing the I800a:
- Forgetting to include payment for the biometric fingerprinting.
- Not including marriage and/or divorce certificates or the required proof of citizenship (most people will submit a birth certificate copy).
- Not submitting the Review and Approve letter from the Hague accredited agency if the home study provider was not Hague accredited.
- Mistakes on the home study preparer’s part, including: not completing all of the requirements for an adult member of the household, not addressing the special needs preparation of the parents, or missing elements required by China.
Most common mistakes when filing the I800:
- Needing to submit a Supplement 3, either because a child at home turned 18 during the process or because the child named in the I800 doesn’t fit what was approved with the I800a (gender, age, special need).
- Not submitting both original language and translation of the child’s file and other supporting documents/photos, called the Article 16 report.
- Not submitting all of the documents provided with the Article 16 report.
Being Matched with a Special Focus Child Before Filing the I800a
China’s special needs program allows families to be matched with a special focus child before they have even started their home study. Families who are matched in this manner are required to have their dossier mailed to China within 6 months of when provisional approval is granted. Sometimes families struggle to meet this deadline if they have delays with their home study and the processing times for the I800a are running longer. Families who are submitting the I800 are given priority in processing because they are matched with a child. People sometimes wonder–couldn’t those who are matched prior to I800a be given priority processing too?
I posed this question to USCIS. According to a USCIS official, prospective parents are not supposed to be matched with a child before they file their I800a. This regulation is because it is the I800a which determines parents eligible to adopt. While USCIS is aware that the China special needs program allows for this, they will continue to process the I800a petitions in order of receipt date. USCIS views the parents and adoption service provider as being responsible for ensuring there is enough time for their I800a to be processed while still meeting the deadlines of the country program.
Meeting Your Child Before the Adoption Process
There are some circumstances where parents set out to adopt a specific child they have already met. Hosting programs are probably the most common scenario for this, but the child might also be a foster sibling of a child they previously adopted, or a child which they met while touring an orphanage during an adoption or mission trip. This causes parents to be concerned when they file the I800 and encounter a question about previous meetings.
The actual question on the I-800 is, “Have you or your spouse (if married) had any contact with the parent(s), legal custodian, or other individual or entity responsible for the care of the child you are seeking to adopt?” Note that this question relates to meeting the legal custodian rather than the child. Usually those participating in a hosting program will travel with a chaperon who is not the orphanage director, but that is not always the case. I can give a personal example of meeting both a perspective child and the legal custodian. When we traveled to Leo’s orphanage, the orphanage director gave us a tour. She handed a girl to my husband and said “You need a girl with so many boys in your family. She is waiting for a family!” She was mostly teasing, but suppose we had returned home and decided to reuse our dossier to adopt her. Would that be a problem?
According to a USCIS officer, this I800 question is to rule out any improper arrangement between a parent and the orphanage or guardian of the child. According to the Hague convention, there should be no contact between the perspective adoptive parents and the child’s custodian until certain conditions have been met. Those conditions involve making sure that the child is eligible for adoption, meeting all of the conditions of the placing country, and that the perspective parents are suitable to adopt. While I did not mention this particular situation to the officer, in our case the orphanage director knew the child was eligible for adoption because her file was prepared. She knew that we were suitable to adopt because we had just adopted a child from her orphanage. If we had decided to pursue her adoption, this meeting would not have been in conflict with the Hague regulations, according to my understanding.
Most people who meet a child at the orphanage during an adoption or mission trip will ask questions about the child’s eligibility through an agency rather than discussing it directly with the orphanage director. If the child’s file is not prepared, it will be an agency which encourages the orphanage to prepare the file rather than the parents. None of this is problematic. Now, if you were to meet a woman in China and make arrangements for her to abandon her child at a particular orphanage so that you could adopt that child, that is the sort of arrangement which is illegal according to the Hague guidelines.
I hope these examples have been helpful for understanding the reason for that particular I800 question. The USCIS is aware that parents sometimes pursue the adoption of a child which they first met at an orphanage or through a hosting program. The USCIS official informed me that there is no cause for the parents to be concerned, as long as China is aware of the contact and it is acknowledged.
Hague Adoption Unit Move
Word began leaking out online a few weeks ago that the Hague Adoption unit was moving from Missouri to Kansas. This move was confirmed by a USCIS official. The National Benefits Center has three facilities–one is in Lee’s Summit, MO, and this is where the Hague Adoption Unit has been located. The other two facilities are located in Overland Park, KS. This is the new location of the Hague Adoption unit.
While many of the officers who worked with adoption cases in Lee’s Summit will be moving to Kansas, there are several new officers who will be joining the adoption unit. According to the USCIS official, all of the officers are now trained and processing applications. USCIS does not anticipate that the move will have an impact on processing times.
If you have received a Request For Evidence, the new address will be listed on the form.
Another issue which adoptive parents have been discussing recently involves medical expedites. According to a USCIS official, there has been no change in policy regarding medical expedites. Approximately 95% of children in international adoptions have medical needs, so medical expedites are reserved for severe, life-threatening circumstances. If you feel that your child meets this criteria, you may submit a request by e-mail after your fingerprint notice has been received.
I submitted the request for the information to USCIS because I hoped that the information would help families to have a better understanding of the immigration process. I asked if there was anything the Hague Adoption unit of USCIS would like to let parents in process know. This is the response I received from a USCIS official:
The NBC is proud of the role it serves in intercountry adoptions process and helping children to find forever homes with U.S. citizen parents. The Adoptions Unit thrives on customer feedback and believes this can serve to enhance communications and the efficiency with which the National Benefits Center delivers its services. Customers may contact the Adoptions Unit directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 877-424-8374.
If you are just beginning your adoption journey and found this post helpful, you might consider buying my book which has all of this information and more, including several chapters on travel.