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40 Years Later, Vietnamese-American Still Not a Citizen


Vietnamese American Kristopher Larsen is one of thousands of foreign nationals adopted by American parents who do not have U.S. citizenship status because their parents did not follow through on naturalization. (A. Barros/VOA)


Kristopher Larsen learned he was not an American citizen while serving time at a prison in the United States.

Larsen, in his early 40s, had never thought of himself as anything other than a citizen.

Born in Vietnam, he was four years old when he left the country.

The year was 1975. U.S. forces were still on duty in South Vietnam.

Before the end of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford ordered a military operation called Operation Babylift. The goal was to help Vietnamese orphans escape from the country.

Larsen was one of those children.

"To be honest, I don't have any memories," Larsen says. "When I was a child … Every time a plane would fly overhead, I would get scared and I would run."

The four-year-old became the adopted son of an American military family. They agreed to take responsibility and care for him as their son.

After his adoption, Larsen was raised in what he calls "an all-American family" in Alaska and the U.S. territory of Guam.

Larsen received a Social Security number from the U.S. government. He also had official documents, like a green card.

So he had no reason to think he was not a citizen.

Good times and bad times

As he grew older, Kristopher Larsen married, had two children, and moved to Seattle, a city in Washington State.

"At one time, I had everything I could possibly want," he said.

But Larsen started to have problems in his marriage. He drank too much alcohol. A short time later, his wife took the children and left.

Larsen said this made him very sad. He decided he would try to make a police officer kill him.

He kidnapped a young girl and demanded money for her release. Eventually, Larsen was captured and sentenced to 12 years in prison. News reports described his crime as one of the most "cold and heartless imaginable."

While in jail, Larsen began working a job. He taught other prisoners mathematics and Japanese.

One day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers learned about him.

"I was called into the counselor's office, and they told me that I would lose my job in prison,” Larson said. “I wouldn't be able to do any educational services. Basically, all the rights that a typical inmate would have I ended up losing because I was told that I have an order of deportation."

Larson moved from a state prison in Washington to an ICE detention center.

Larsen's parents had thought he was a citizen through his adoption.

But to the U.S. government, Kristopher Larsen was a Vietnamese national with a criminal record.

Larsen noted that he had registered for possible military service. This is a requirement for young men once they reach the age of 18.

Larsen said he had paid his taxes. "So why couldn't I be a citizen?" he asked.

Adoption in the U.S.

Becky Belcore is the co-director of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center. The organization directs the Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Since the 1940s, some 350-thousand children have been adopted from overseas by U.S. citizens, Belcore says.

She notes that adoptive parents are responsible for getting citizenship for their children. Some parents did not know they were responsible. Others knew, Belcore says, but the citizenship process was so costly and difficult that they did not complete it.

In 2001, the U.S. Congress passed legislation giving citizenship to children adopted from other countries – but only if they were born after 1983.

In an attempt to get citizenship rights for those born before 1983, the Adoptee Rights Campaign is supporting the Adoptee Citizenship Act.

Congress failed to pass the bill during the election campaign last year. Belcore says no members wanted to work on immigration issues. Activists are hoping to reintroduce the measure.

Uncertain Future

Kristopher Larsen was released from prison in 2015. He could be sent back to Vietnam – if the government agrees to accept him.

The United States does not have a return agreement with Vietnam that applies to Larsen.

In a 2008 agreement, Vietnam agreed to take back citizens who came to the U.S. after 1995. Whether a similar agreement that would apply to people born before 1995 - such as Larsen - will take place anytime soon is unclear.

Since his release from prison, Larsen has met several times with ICE agents. He now works at the non-profit Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

"Now I'm stuck," he noted while speaking to VOA from the group's headquarters. "I can't leave US soil. So even if I wanted to visit my family in Guam, I couldn’t do that because I would be crossing international lines."

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Jill Robbins.

Aline Barros wrote this story for VOA News. John Russell adapted her story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

orphan – n. a child whose parents are dead

Social Security number – n. a number that is given to each U.S. citizen by the government and that is used for official records

green card – n. a document showing that a person from a foreign country can live and work in the U.S.

adopt – v. to legally take a child of other parents to raise

apply – v. to have a connection; to make an appeal or request

reintroduce – v. to propose or bring forward a bill a second time

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