His backpack has been hanging by the door of our Chicago house since March 13, the last day my son and his older brother, who is 8, went to school, the last day life didn’t feel suspended. The suitcase I had packed for my trip to Morocco to meet the boy in the picture stayed on my bedroom floor for a few weeks until I finally put it in a closet, unable to deal with the reminder of what almost was.
Days before I was scheduled to travel to meet my son and start the process to bring him home, Morocco closed its borders. It is under a quarantine until at least the end of May. We had planned to travel as a family to Morocco this summer to complete the adoption. I now hope I can get to him sometime this fall, which feels optimistic, particularly with increasing rates of infection in the United States and the rush to return to an elusive normal before the virus is contained.
Our family is healthy for now, even the little one in Morocco, according to the orphanage director, who sends me pictures through WhatsApp. I am grateful for our health, and for the pictures. But a devastating uncertainty to the global pandemic has caught me by surprise, even though I am familiar with the unpredictability of international adoption. Both of my older sons were adopted from Morocco when they were infants, and I’ve often told people adopting is like being in the first trimester of pregnancy the entire time. Laws change. Countries open and close. In Morocco, I need a judge to grant custody and then the U.S. Consulate to grant the child an immigrant visa, both processes that can be delayed, or not happen at all.
“We are certainly in the midst of an unprecedented time, and the impacts to adoption — both domestic and international — are real,” said Kim Perez, president and chief executive of The Cradle, an Illinois adoption agency.
Tiffany Jackson had her flight booked to travel to China on Feb. 7 to meet her 5-year-old daughter with the “cutest little pigtails you’ve ever seen.” The couple has three children at home in rural Utah.
Now the adoption is on hold.
“I had everything ready,” Jackson said. “All of her little clothes are clean, hanging in the closet. Our daughter asks frequently, ‘When you go get my little sister?’ It has been hard on us all. We have been given no projection as to when would even be a possibility to go. Which, I understand.”
Jackson isn’t angry, she said, just sad. “Some days I think, ‘We’ll get through this. We’ll get her home when we’re meant to.’ And some days the overwhelming realization sets in that this unprecedented time, with everyone being home, would have been the most amazing opportunity to introduce our child into our family, and to be able to have this time to bond and attach as a family. We were so close. And now, we just don’t know. ”
Allison Singleton and her family also were days from traveling to China to meet their 7-year-old daughter when they got word in February that they needed to cancel their flights.
“We had a feeling this might happen but held out hope,” said Singleton, whose family lives in South Carolina. She said it has helped to connect with other waiting families through adoption groups on Facebook.
“We trust God’s plan and timing,” said Singleton, a worship leader, home-school mom and ESL teacher to Chinese children.
I had already bought presents for my son’s 2nd birthday and had hoped to celebrate with him in July in Morocco. My sons and I were going to spend most of the summer there, visiting our favorite beaches and playgrounds and sharing Friday couscous with friends.
Now, though, when I do get to go, I expect that we will have to quarantine on either side of the trip. I know the coronavirus won’t be gone by the time I can hopefully travel to Morocco. We’ve been diligent about staying at home and following the advice of our state and city leaders and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the idea that I would risk all of that makes me feel nervous. But I can’t leave my son in the orphanage. Even though the courts haven’t made it official, even though legally I’m just a stranger with a broken heart and a creased picture, this little boy already feels like part of our family.
Like Jackson, the Utah mother, I’m not angry, just sad and, truthfully, fearful about changes to the process. President Trump temporarily suspended immigration to the United States, but the U.S. State Department has said that international adoptions, as well as minor children of U.S. citizens, are exempt from the 60-day ban on issuing new green cards. Most children who are adopted from overseas come to the United States as immigrants — lawful green-card holders — and either get citizenship upon arrival or later through a U.S. court process when their adoption is finalized.
The Office of Children’s Issues informed U.S.-Hague adoption agencies late Tuesday that it had received questions regarding the latest immigration order but had no additional information to offer.
People seeking to adopt overseas must get approval from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Since January, there were 765 orphan applications pending in both Hague and non-Hague countries in which a child has been identified and the family has been authorized by the host country to adopt. (These are called I-600 and I-800 petitions).
Some of the measures USCIS has taken in response to the pandemic may assist adoptive families, such as automatically rescheduling appointments or offering emergency services in special circumstances, the spokesperson said. USCIS is also accepting applications for extensions. (U.S. approvals to adopt have expiration dates. Mine is next summer).
I hadn’t planned to share news about the pending adoption (and had also instructed my mother not to tell anyone, a very difficult request for a 77-year-old grandmother expecting her seventh grandson) until I was able to bring my son home this summer. But in recent weeks, I’ve told a few more friends and neighbors, mostly to feel less isolated in my sadness and fear.
Many mornings I check in with a friend I met through BLOOM Charity, a nonprofit that builds playgrounds and gardens for orphans in Morocco. Mona Reza, a lawyer who lives in Bethesda with her husband and two daughters, ages 17 and 21, is adopting a 9-year-old boy from Morocco.
We had planned to be there at the same time this summer and had been sharing our hopes and concerns about the unpredictable process even before the pandemic turned the world upside down.
Reza said she is trying to be patient, but it’s hard. She has been able to FaceTime with her son, but it eats at her “knowing that he’s wondering why we aren’t coming to get him.” She said she keeps reminding herself to have “faith over fear,” especially with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan just beginning.
My own disappointment comes in waves. One morning this week, Reza patiently walked me back from the edge when I reached out with my latest worry about the temporary immigration ban.
We texted back and forth, sharing what we knew from poring over the latest news accounts. I thanked her for being the friend I needed right now. “I have to go get him,” she told me.
“We will bring our boys home together,” I assured her.
But for now, we wait.
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now a filmmaker and associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.