Feeling Our Way

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Immigration and Adoption

I wish all Americans had to pass the naturalization test.

We say that an immigrant can adopt a new culture, but actually it’s the other way around. An immigrant can accept or resist adoption by his new culture, just as a child can accept or resist adoption by a new family. Relevant factors include the age of the person being adopted (which is really a stand-in for the degree of identification with the prior culture), how welcome the person is in the new culture, and how ambivalent the culture is about adoption.

It bugs me when newborns are adopted and the parents are required to promise that they will teach the infant about her “cultural heritage.” A newborn has no cultural heritage—unless you believe that language, clothing, ritual, and values are genetic traits. What is really meant is that society is so literal about category membership that the parents should not try to raise the child as if she is theirs, thereby practically ensuring a sense of otherness at her core. For immigrant children, this means they are made to feel guilty if they allow themselves to be adopted by their new country, as if they are not preserving something that it is their duty to preserve. One of my more lasting pet peeves is my childhood irritation with the idea that Clark Kent is Superman’s secret identity. The guy is Clark Kent, adopted by the Kents, raised by the Kents, nurtured by the Kents, and guided by the Kents. Superman is his secret identity.

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Older immigrants, of course, do have a heritage, and they may naturally prefer to preserve it. Venezuelan immigrants might enjoy getting together with compatriots, eating arepas, and speaking Spanish. I feel the same way when I take a break from academia once a week and connect with child welfare colleagues. An adoptive family can lovingly arrange for their child to spend time with members of his biological family, as long as the arrangement is not construed as a backup plan reflecting ambivalence by the adoptive family.

Except for the sexual component, falling in love is pretty good analogy for adoption, and I have never met adoptive or foster parents who didn’t know exactly what I meant when I asked them if they had fallen in love with the child. Things go badly when the parents don’t fall in love with the child, and things go badly when the child doesn’t or can’t fall in love with the parents. Falling in love means that the parents are added to the short list of people the child can never fire, and vice versa. Yes, I realize that divorce and even parent-child discord leads to people firing people they should have had on their short list, but it sure is nice to believe fully that there are some people who just can’t fire you, even if you turn out to be wrong. It sure is nice to think you can’t be deported. Someone once told me that this is what she gets from worshipping Jesus.

I suppose I am suggesting the possibility of an emotional, rather than a legal, test for residence status. You can’t expect a child to commit to a family if the family won’t commit to him, and you can’t expect an immigrant to commit to a country if the country teases him with citizenship. The central issue for me in immigration policy is how to tell if it’s true love. It’s a lot easier to look at a family and assess true love than to look at an immigrant and a nation, but I suspect the relevant variables have to do with the immigrant’s feelings about the Bill of Rights, regulated capitalism, and the separation of church and state, and the country’s feelings about the immigrant’s past behavior and reasons for coming here. I wish all Americans knew as much about the Constitution as naturalized citizens are required to know; maybe then we’d have less conflict about which values define us.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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