Left behind: America's ongoing policy indifference toward foreign-born citizens

By Calvin Godfrey   November 27, 2016 | 02:00 am GMT+7

'I'm very sad that America has left him behind.'

On a bright day in 2009, just before Tet, a 66 year-old U.S. Army Veteran named Christopher J. Smith donned a golden tunic and married a beautiful Vietnamese woman nearly half his age in Ho Chi Minh City.

When she became pregnant, months later, everyone in her family assumed the boy would grow up an American, not just because that's what his country owed him, but because legally that was his birthright.

For over a century, American law has promised the full rights of citizenship to the children of American fathers and foreign mothers. Smith seemed ready to make sure it would happen. Their son's Vietnamese birth certificate bears the name Nguyen Anh Tuan, but Smith only ever called him Dylan—a name the family quickly adopted.

But those rights disappeared with Smith's interest in the child. Today, the most powerful government in the world won't lift a finger to help the child mirroring decades of indifference toward foreign-born offspring.

Just as Dylan came into the world, a Ho Chi Minh City doctor gave his mother a fatal dose of antibiotics. The same drugs left Dylan with a host of disabilities that inhibit his ability to walk or speak.

Smith donned a white robe and burned incense for his deceased bride. He told the family he would fly back to his home in Florida to take care of a few things.

Smith wired the family a couple hundred dollars and kept up on his son's life online.

Then, one day, he denied his parentage in a terse electronic chat—the last things he would say to the family that had welcomed him into their home.

Consular and State Department staff declined to get involved. A Florida congressman sent staffers to Smith's trailer park, but he simply told them to go away. For years, he refused to sign off on his son's citizenship, though his name appears on marriage, birth and death certificates in Vietnam.

Nguyen Do Thi Thu Giang and US Army Veteran Christopher J. Smith married in Ho Chi Minh City in 2009. Nine months later, Giang died giving birth to their son Nguyen Anh Tuan. Smith named the child Dylan shortly before leaving the country, never to return.

Nguyen Do Thi Thu Giang and U.S. Army Veteran Christopher J. Smith married in Ho Chi Minh City in 2009. Nine months later, Giang died giving birth to their son Nguyen Anh Tuan. Smith named the child Dylan shortly before leaving the country, never to return.

Christopher J. Smith at his wifes funeral in Ho Chi Minh City. Shortly after the burial, Smith returned to Florida. For a time, he sent money to support his son, who was born with several developmental disabilities. Months later, he told his bereaved in-laws that he didnt believe the child to be his. He cut off all contact making it impossible for the family to obtain citizenship or help from the US Government whose laws recognize such children as citizens from birth.

Christopher J. Smith at his wife's funeral in Ho Chi Minh City. Shortly after the burial, Smith returned to Florida. For a time, he sent money to support his son, who was born with several developmental disabilities. Months later, he told his bereaved in-laws that he didn't believe the child to be his. He cut off all contact making it impossible for the family to obtain citizenship or help from the U.S. Government whose laws recognize such children as citizens from birth.

A long, dark history

Ever since the end of WWII, U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam have fathered generations of children who had no path to U.S. citizenship.

Nearly all legal efforts to apply birthright laws to these children have failed.

One state department official told VnExpress International “there is no law or process that compels a U.S. citizen to establish a citizenship claim for a child born abroad", before adding that she knew of no organization that provided legal assistance to children abandoned by U.S. fathers.

Because the State Department makes no effort to address or assist in these claims, no one knows how many Americans go abroad, father children and then deny them access to citizenship.

“I'm sure there are a lot,” said Cal Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American attorney who first reviewed Dylan's case.

The attorney's name has appeared on a list of lawyers handed to visitors at the Ho Chi Minh City Consulate since 1998. Cal estimates he's probably seen half a dozen such cases during his time practicing law in Vietnam, none of which he could do anything about.

“You need someone to file a case in the state where the parent lives,” he said. “You can't do anything from here and most of these women don't have the money to file lawsuits in the United States.”

According to Prof. Sabrina Thomas, America's Supreme Court basically threw out any claim such children had to citizenship in a 1977 ruling called Fiallo V. Bell, which cited "a concern with the serious problems of proof that usually lurk in paternity determinations."

Thomas's recent doctoral thesis The Value of Dust: Policy, Citizenship and Vietnam's Amerasians offers a rare chronicle of an ongoing effort to shield American men from their foreign children. The document offers a long history of mind-numbing refusals to grant passports to children fathered by deadbeat citizens abroad—refusals codified into policy.

Take, for example, the Filipina woman who was denied her U.S. passport in 1997 even after her American father signed an admission of his paternity. It turned out she missed an arbitrary deadline to make such a request before the age of 18.

Or consider the case filed by Joe Cotchett, a former special forces paratrooper who sued the U.S. Navy on behalf of 8,600 Filipina mothers living in Olongapo, where the Navy once employed “entertainers” for the thousands of American servicemen.

The Navy later offered the women an undisclosed settlement and Cotchett never responded to repeated requests for interviews.

Beating America's bastard policy

Nguyen Anh Tuan (Dylan) plays on the floor of his grandmothers house in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. In the background hangs a picture of his mother Nguyen Do Thi Thu Giang who died giving birth to him. His American father, Christopher J. Smith, refused to help the child achieve his birthright citizenship until a Florida attorney compelled him to submit to a DNA paternity test and fill out the paperwork necessary to grant the child a passport.

Nguyen Anh Tuan (Dylan) plays on the floor of his grandmother's house in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. In the background hangs a picture of his mother Nguyen Do Thi Thu Giang who died giving birth to him. His American father, Christopher J. Smith, refused to help the child achieve his birthright citizenship until a Florida attorney compelled him to submit to a DNA paternity test and fill out the paperwork necessary to grant the child a passport.

On a bright summer day last year, Dylan spent three hours staggering through the sterile waiting room at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, screaming and giggling.

Now a rambunctious five-year old, he collided with frustrated newlyweds, expecting parents and perplexed American citizens as he cried out unintelligible words in Vietnamese and English.

Registered on their faces was the confusion, frustration and exhaustion his family has had to contend with every day of his life.

Just before noon, a consular employee invited Nguyen's grandmother and his uncle, Lam, into a small room and told them the child would soon receive the U.S. passport the family has pursued for years.

In 2012, a Thanh Nien newspaper story about Dylan's fate found its way to Linda Osberg, a high-powered Miami immigration attorney who agreed to represent the family pro bono.

At the time, Osberg planned to take the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

“In my opinion, we would have won before a federal judge,” she wrote in an email. “The child either is or is not a citizen – there is no discretion for the father to say he is not if all conditions have been met – and the law does not make it discretionary for parents to decide.”

In the end, Dylan never got his day in court.

Osberg's investigator tracked Smith to a trailer park in Palm Beach County.

Struggling with terminal cancer, the retired Defense Department employee agreed to submit to a DNA paternity test that came up positive.

Dylan, at age 5, eats dinner with his grandmother Do Thi Hoi in 2014. Today, his 72-year old grandmother finds it harder than ever to care for him. As a consequence of his severe autism, Dylan has trouble walking and speaking. He sometimes flies into tantrums and hits or bites Hoi who has raised him since birth.

Dylan, at age 5, eats dinner with his grandmother Do Thi Hoi in 2014. Today, his 72-year old grandmother finds it harder than ever to care for him. As a consequence of his severe autism, Dylan has trouble walking and speaking. He sometimes flies into tantrums and hits or bites Hoi who has raised him since birth.

Under pressure from his own attorney, Smith filled out an application for Dylan's passport.

Consular officers in Ho Chi Minh City spent months demanding additional notary stamps and updated signatures, while Smith slipped toward death. Before he passed, Smith took the extraordinary step of disinheriting Dylan.

The U.S. government proved equally mean.

Even after recognizing Dylan as a citizen, they refused to grant him a social security number, a code essential for obtaining disability benefits and other services. First they demanded his family obtain a certificate of guardianship—a process that took months.

Later, they refused to recognize their Vietnamese passports as valid forms of identification.

Through it all, consular staff have questioned why the family want a passport for Dylan and assured them, at every step, that they will almost certainly deny them visas to take the child to America for treatment and education.

Constructively exiled from his own country, Dylan spends his days at a remedial school for the disabled that costs less than $100 per month.

Local doctors have told his uncle he suffers from brain damage or some form of autism.

The American citizen's primary caretaker is his bereaved 74-year old grandmother, who struggles to manage his unpredictable tantrums and rages.

The Amerasian exception

According to Prof. Thomas, it was only shame and cold war anxieties that inspired the U.S. to offer special visas to the 30-50,000 children it left behind in Vietnam.

In 1982, the U.S. passed the Amerasian Immigration Act that demanded the kind of proof of parentage and financial support that many abandoned children lacked. In 1987, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which offered refugee benefits to Amerasians and their immediate relatives in Vietnam based on a mixed-race appearance alone.

Over 21,000 Vietnamese-born Amerasians famously emigrated to the United States under two bills that offered them permanent residency, but not citizenship. Over 51,000 more of their alleged caretakers and family members emigrated under the same programs, which State Department officials say have always suffered from widespread fraud.

Unsupported Amerasians fell into the cracks of American society. In his 1996 book The Dream Shattered, a Vietnamese American youth counsellor claimed that 90 percent of male Amerasians who ended up in San Francisco joined criminal gangs.

Such news ultimately quickly dissolved any political will to do right by America's illegitimate children.

Three efforts by California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren to grant citizenship to Vietnamese and Korean Amerasians failed to advance through the country's legislative process. Meanwhile, Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is actively attempting to kill the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act.

Left behind

Nguyen Anh Tuan (Dylan) has two orphaned half-siblings. Dylans uncle and legal guardian, Lam Khac Nguyen hopes his older half-sister can accompany him to the United States where a school district will provide Dylan the education hes guaranteed under US law. State Department officials have made it clear they have no intention of issuing visas to the family, should they attempt to apply.

Nguyen Anh Tuan (Dylan) has two orphaned half-siblings. Dylan's uncle and legal guardian, Lam Khac Nguyen hopes his older half-sister can accompany him to the United States where a school district will provide Dylan the education he's guaranteed under US law. State Department officials have made it clear they have no intention of issuing visas to the family, should they attempt to apply.

All of these laws, however, dealt with children fathered under military occupation. Civilian cases like Dylan's seem far more disturbing.

“You're dealing with people who are recognized fathers,” said Thomas, who authored the dissertation on citizenship. “It's very clear that the U.S. is undermining its own laws.”

With the exception of a few small support groups roughly organized in cities and towns with high concentrations of Amerasian children, Thomas says there isn't a single organization dedicated to assisting them in the United States.

Dylan's uncle still holds out hope his nephew will get the care he deserves from his country, but it dims by the day.

For a time, Lam wrote pleading letters to the consulate asking for information about charitable hospitals or organizations that might help get the boy to the U.S. for treatment. He says they never offered to help.

After seven years of pro-bono work, attorney Osberg is hoping Smith's survivors will agree to give their unwanted sibling a small portion of his estate.

In the meantime, the child spends his days in a one-room school full of similarly disabled children where the staff feed him and “teach him nothing,” according to Lam. At night, Dylan watches television and stumbles around his grandmother's house.

“I'm very sad that America has left him behind,” his uncle said.

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