In Arkansas, USA, an adoption racket gave citizens of Marshall Island a chance to escape their poverty and the ill-effects of climate change. Here’s the morally ambiguous, but fascinating story.
“Lamy was far from alone. While adoption is common among the Marshallese community in Arkansas—in a loose, unofficial, familial way, similar to how it is in the islands—it had also become common, in the region, for Marshallese women to put their babies up for adoption with white American families. Petersen’s agency was one of the most popular, and had flown many birth mothers, like Lamy, to the United States while they were pregnant. Another Marshallese woman, who, with her daughter, had only been in the United States for a month and was a week away from giving birth, told me, “The adoption was the only way I could get here.” While pregnant in Majuro, she had spoken with her brother in the United States, who occasionally worked for Petersen as a translator and who had, with his fiancée, placed several of his own children up for adoption through the agency. What no one had told her, or Lamy, was that, under the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., it is illegal for a woman to travel to the United States for the purpose of putting a child up for adoption.
Rumors circulated that Marshallese women, as one former employee for the Arkansas Department of Human Services told me, “were selling their babies for cash.” That was not the case, but, as Kathryn Joyce wrote in The New Republic, in 2015, over the past decade, adoptions of Marshallese babies were occurring in the Springdale area at an alarming rate, with many of the mothers feeling pressured into a situation that they could not escape. Joyce profiled one Marshallese woman, Maryann Koshiba, who had placed her baby up for adoption believing that she would be able to keep in touch with the adoptive parents and see her child in the future. But, in Arkansas, the law dictates that all adoptions are closed—the birth parents’ identities are sealed and unavailable to the adopted child, and the adoptive parents’ identities are sealed and unavailable to the birth parents. (Arrangements can be made to circumvent that law and keep identities transparent.) Koshiba, however, did not know anything about closed adoption and became increasingly frantic when she was unable to contact the adoptive parents or find out anything about her baby. “Welcome to the world of legal realities,” Petersen told The New Republic. If law-enforcement officials “really want to stop it, then they should bar all Marshallese people—women—from coming to the U.S. unless they have a medical examiner show they’re not pregnant.”