When Christian left Andrea at the Munich airport at 6 a.m., they expected he would join her in a few weeks.
More than a month later, Christian Hoffmann is still in Munich, working at home for a pharmaceutical company. His wife is living temporarily in an apartment in Frederick, Md., doing administrative tasks on her laptop for her job as an air traffic controller. She has spent countless hours watching the news and the first five seasons of “Game of Thrones,” and bonding with their surrogate, who has brought her three daughters to the parking lot of Andrea’s building so she can watch them dance from a second-floor balcony.
“We are just so glad one of us is here,” she said. “I didn’t think it would come to this. I thought, ‘It will be all right; they cannot lock down everything.’ I never would have imagined this situation.”
The sweeping travel restrictions, imposed with little advance notice, have interrupted plans for prospective new families around the world. The United States has imposed restrictions on travelers who have been in China, Iran and most of Europe, as well as Canada and Mexico. Nine of 10 people in the world live in countries that have closed their borders because of the covid-19 outbreak, narrowing international travel to a trickle.
As a result, many people overseas with surrogates in the United States are either stranded thousands of miles away or stuck in the United States, unable to bring their newborns home. And Americans who were about to fly abroad for international adoptions cannot enter the countries where children wait for them, often in orphanages.
“We literally had 15 families who had tickets purchased to leave the next day or in few days, and 10 families ready to purchase tickets,” said Susan Cox, vice president for policy at Holt International, an Oregon-based Christian organization that arranged more than 500 adoptions from other countries last year.
“In some cases, their adoptions had been in process for two or three years. They were finally at the point where the child was ready to travel, and the adoption was ready to be completed. They were so close.”
Thomas Mitchell and his wife, Callie, had been waiting for eight months to bring a 3-year-old boy home from an orphanage in northern China. Mitchell built him a bed that his daughters painted and decorated his room at their home in Chattanooga, Tenn., with a mural of pandas and pagodas. They had plane tickets to China in early February, but 12 days before their departure date, the adoption was put on indefinite hold.
“At first, we thought it would be a couple weeks’ delay,” said Thomas Mitchell, a real estate transaction coordinator. “Then it snowballed. Now, nobody knows when we can go.”
The Mitchells sent their son, whom they will name John Tao Mitchell, a new photo book and a letter explaining that they will come as soon as the airplanes can fly again, not knowing if that will be weeks or months from now.
“It’s incredibly sad,” Thomas Mitchell said. “It’s incredibly frustrating. We’re still very hopeful as well. I’d say if there’s an emotion out there, we’re probably feeling it.”
Further complicating matters, the State Department has been swamped with arranging airlifts for tens of thousands of Americans and has curtailed most routine passport services. U.S. embassies and consulates have continued to issue passports for infants newly adopted overseas — if the parents can get there. But that has been no help for surrogacy births.
When governments began imposing travel bans, no one foresaw the consequences for families created with the help of surrogates, said Nidhi Desai, a Chicago lawyer who specializes in international adoptions and surrogacies.
Many foreigners who choose surrogacy come to the United States because family law in most states has established procedures and protections unavailable in their native countries. Typically, the prospective parents get a pre-birth court order declaring them the parents. They arrive in the United States a few weeks before the birth, take the court order to get a passport for the infant and return home a few weeks after the birth.
The global pandemic threw a bureaucratic hurdle into the process.
Anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen and must use a U.S. passport to exit the country. That includes babies born to gestational surrogates. So far, the State Department does not consider surrogacy a life-or-death emergency to make an exception to the passport pause, and won’t issue them. Without a passport for their baby, the parents cannot return home once air travel resumes.
“Nobody thinks they should travel now,” said Desai, noting covid-19 health concerns in the United States as well as most other countries. “But they should be able to, the minute it’s safe to go back home.”
Desai estimates about 100 sets of parents are ensnared in travel restrictions preventing them from coming to the United States for a surrogacy birth, or from leaving to go home. If the crisis continues for several months, several hundred more families will be affected, she said.
The State Department is considering a policy change to address the situation.
“We recognize that in addition to wanting to be present at the birth of their child, there may be medical decisions to be made and we want to be sensitive to that, so we’re examining ways in which these intending parents can travel,” a State Department spokesman said.
Even parents who made it to the United States before travel bans took effect say the uncertainty is stressful.
Eneko Arrese, an accountant, and his husband, Eneko Amezketa, a dance director, flew from their home in Spain’s Basque country to Chicago in early March. At the time, the covid-19 virus was raging in Spain and just starting to spread in the United States.
The couple had planned to witness the March 26 birth of their son, Aretx, the Basque word for “oak.” But hospital restrictions related to the coronavirus allowed only one person to be present, and they ceded that place to the surrogate’s mother.
As they and their newborn follow “stay at home” guidelines in an Airbnb rental, waiting for their attorney to finalize documents for their son to travel, their joy is leavened with worry that their return flights on a roundabout route will be canceled before they can leave.
“We follow newspapers, all day,” Arrese said. “We’re afraid, because we’re far from home. It’s not our country. We’re far from family, and friends and everything we know.”
Among their biggest fears is a health emergency. Although they purchased U.S. health insurance, illness would require them to navigate a system they do not understand.
Though the viral outbreak is flattening out in Spain and restrictions there may ease soon, their worries will not evaporate when they return home.
“It scares us a lot,” said Arrese. “We know in our house we are going to be in quarantine. But we will feel more comfortable being in our own country.”