Communication Currents

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Adoption Is a Real Mother: Debunking Adoption Myths in an Age of Contested Immigration

April 6, 2017
Current Commentary

By Ellen W. Gorsevski, Ph.D.

Post-9/11, the climate of anti-immigrant politics has escalated, worsening perceptions about immigrants, including orphans. International adoption numbers have thus plunged, despite an increase in the number of orphans and the number of families seeking to adopt. Anti-terrorism politics erodes adoption, recasting potential child-immigrants as mini-terrorists. As law professor Failinger (2014) puts it, “Intercountry adoption has … become an international political battleground.”

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Within this context, there is little public understanding regarding the challenges faced by families adopting immigrant children, a problem I argue Communication research can help to remedy. To begin this process of public education, I offer here a dose of reality regarding the complexities of international adoption. First and most important, I demonstrate below how post-9/11 immigration policies harm children and the families trying to adopt them. Second, I argue that adoption myths are perpetuated in U.S. cultural norms and communication about adoption, clouding public understanding. These myths include such fallacies as: (1) adoption is fast and easy; (2) only babies (not older children or teens) deserve a loving family; (3) immigrant children are proto-terrorists; and (4) U.S. democratic institutions help adoptive families by resolving glitches in immigration processes.

Geopolitics affects communication about adopting immigrant children. Internationally, diseases, wars, and political unrest have left approximately 18 million children orphaned (UNICEF, 2015). Without living relatives, many orphans are adoptable, and “95 percent … are over age five” (UNICEF, 2015). What is seldom communicated, however, is the United States’ militarization of formerly service-oriented immigration processes. As part of the post-9/11 militarization of American life, formerly supportive naturalization citizenship processes have devolved into institutionalized xenophobia. Today’s securitized immigration renders more onerous than ever before the vetting of eligible American families to adopt children internationally.

My own seven-years-long odyssey of international adoption successfully concluded in 2013. Today, however, thousands of other prospective adoptive parents must grapple with new legal, cultural and fiscal “Great Walls” to scale. During my family’s grueling adoption process, I learned that anti-terror politics have remapped U.S. government organization charts. The previously named Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was militarized away from serving adoptive families and immigrant adoptees into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), plus Customs and Border Control (CBC), organized under Homeland Security. Because of this massive shift from service to security, government funds have depleted the vast infrastructure needed for processing immigrating children and vetting prospective adoptive parents. Instead, funds have been redirected to Homeland Security’s ballooning bureaucracy, including current efforts to construct a U.S.-Mexico-border wall. One result of these shifts has been the loss of access to reasonable international child adoption procedures.

Intercountry adoption has … become an international political battleground


Today immigration is routinely discussed or processed as if children were adults. For example, my adoption process included adult-focused questions about our adoptee children, then ages 4 and 5, about whom Homeland Security asked, “How many spouses/children does immigrant have in nation of origin?” Such questions reveal an anti-terror bias that precludes children’s innocence, implying instead that even orphaned children are jihadist soldiers with armed spouses.

International adoption is a complex rhetorical process that controls immigrant and citizen bodies via legalistic discourses. Ironically, multicultural adoptive parenting is trendy in today’s popular culture. The NBC hit television show, This Is Us, features a white couple with twins, who adopt an African American baby and then raise their children as triplets. The myth of zero paperwork is purveyed in the show’s plot line; the couple is not required to go undergo a background check or complete a single form. The reality is far different: In a typical adoption application process, hundreds of forms are completed, then periodically renewed; adoption agencies pre-screen, and then state and local police do regular background checks; and 50 states’ sex offender registries do cross checks. Families seeking international adoptions face the added scrutiny of Homeland Security screenings, labyrinthine Hague Convention processes, and much more.

However, prevailing tales portray breezy adoptions that skip the quasi-military paperwork phases and endless oversight of adoption. Romantic comedies such as Raising Helen (2004) narrate happy-ending tales in conventional plots. In the film, cuddly Kate Hudson is matched with a perfect guy to co-parent her newly adopted brood. The Oscars-awarded film Lion (2016) featured international adoption, but with an extraordinarily unusual story of a now adult adoptee searching for and reuniting happily with his biological family in India. Meanwhile, American stars of bounteous financial resources go globetrotting to adopt internationally; such stars include Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman, Madonna, “Brangelina,” and others. While filming Life As We Know It (2010), Katherine Heigl adopted a child and grappled with new motherhood, so that art imitated life, except the baby in the film was white whereas Heigl’s real-life adoptee, Naleigh, was from South Korea.  These popular culture texts depict international adoption as an act of grace and giving, devoid of the layers-upon-layers of bureaucratic intervention, astronomical costs, and threatening questions from the post-9/11 militarized state. As my own experience attests, immigration obstacles grow for non-VIP families seeking to adopt internationally.

Communication scholars are connecting international adoption and nontraditional parenting to other forms of exclusionary politics, revealing the mistreatment of some of the most vulnerable and politically disenfranchised on the planet: immigrant refugees and orphaned children. And so, as Communication becomes more deeply committed to civic engagement and social justice, I hope this contribution helps to foster conversations about international adoption, which is a crucial avenue of human rights in our age of contested immigration.


  • Anderson, Kayla N.; Rueter, Martha A.; Lee, Richard M. Discussions About Racial and Ethnic Differences in Internationally Adoptive Families: Links With Family Engagement, Warmth, & Control. Journal of Family Communication. Oct-Dec 2015, Vol. 15 Issue 4, p 289-308.
  • Chen, Zhuojun Joyce. Exploring the Relationship Between Adoptive Parents and International Adoptees: From the Perspectives of Cross-Cultural Communication and Adaptation. Adoption Quarterly. Apr-Jun 2016, Vol. 19 Issue 2, p 119-144.
  • Failinger, Marie A. Moving Toward Human Rights Principles for Intercountry Adoption. North Carolina Journal of International Law & Commercial Regulation. Winter 2014, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p 523-590.
  • Fixmer-Oraiz, Natalie. Contemplating Homeland Maternity. Women’s Studies in Communication vol 38, p 129-134 | Published online: 04 Jun 2015.
  • Harrigan, MM. Exploring the narrative process: an analysis of the adoption stories mothers tell their internationally adopted children. Journal of Family Communication, Jan-Mar2010; 10(1): 24-39. 16p. (Journal Article - research, tables/charts) ISSN: 1526-7431, Database: CINAHL
  • Jacobson, Heather. Framing Adoption: The Media and Parental Decision Making. Journal of Family Issues, Apr2014, Vol. 35 Issue 5, p654-676, 23p; DOI: 10.1177/0192513X13479333, Database: Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson).
  • Lam, Carla. Thinking Through Post-constructionism: Reflections on (Reproductive) Disembodiment and Misfits. Studies in Social Justice. 2016, Vol. 10 Issue 2, p289-307.
  • Suter, Elizabeth A. Negotiating Identity and Pragmatism: Parental Treatment of International Adoptees' Birth Culture Names. Journal of Family Communication. 2012, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p209-226. 18p. DOI: 10.1080/15267431.2012.686940. Database: Communication & Mass Media Complete
  • UNICEF. Orphans. Retrieved 16 February 2017
  • Voigt, Kevin and Brown, Sophie. International adoptions in decline as number of orphans grows. CNN. September 17, 2013. Retrieved 17 February 2017

Online Resources

Media Resource: Issue Experts

  • Zhuojun Joyce Chen, University of Northern Iowa
  • Elizabeth A. Suter, University of Denver
  • Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, University of Iowa

About the author (s)

Ellen W. Gorsevski

Bowling Green State University

Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University (BGSU).

Dr. Gorsevski’s articles analyzing communication of nonviolent activists for social, political and environmental justice have appeared in Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; Journal of Communication and Religion; and Environmental Communication. She has written books such as Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Troubador Publishing, Ltd., 2014).  

Ellen W. Gorsevski