By Joe Gould THE NEWS-TIMES
U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Chris Dodd have stepped in to help a New Milford couple fight for custody of their adopted Vietnamese baby.
But help from high places is no guarantee John and Eileen Merrill will be allowed to bring baby Jayde home.
“We can’t make any guarantees about the outcome,” said Laura Cahill, a Lieberman staffer handling the case. “But we can make a guarantee that we will make every effort to see that this family is reunited.”
The two Connecticut Democrats have written letters to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on behalf of the Merrills, a childless couple in their 30s whose efforts to adopt a baby girl were thwarted this month by allegations that — without their knowledge — the baby was bought for them.
“We’d like to see if there’s any room for a favorable ruling to overturn the denial,” Cahill said. “One bright spot is that it’s clear that (the Merrills) were not involved.”
INS officials in the capital say the law is clear on black market babies immigrating to the United States. It’s illegal. If a baby is purchased, “there’s no room for interpretation,” said Michael Biggs, assistant director of adjudication at INS.
The director of the agency that found the baby for the Merrills, Asian Orphans of Hope, denied in his first public comments since the adoption derailed that he has ever bought babies.
The INS has never accused the Merrills of being directly involved with the alleged baby purchase. The Merrills arranged the adoption through A Child Among Us, a now-defunct South Glastonbury adoption agency. But whether the adoptive parents gave money “directly or indirectly” to the birth parent, U.S. immigration law bars the baby from obtaining orphan status necessary to immigrate.
The Merrills declined to comment publicly while the case is ongoing, citing the advice of their attorney.
In February, they traveled to Vietnam and applied to have the baby classified as an orphan after the 16-year-old birth mother transferred custody to them in a Ho Chi Minh City courthouse.
But earlier this month, an INS probe of Asian Orphans of Hope found that it was “engaged exclusively in the purchase and trafficking of babies as an established practice.” The INS refused to grant permission for the baby to immigrate.
After the Merrills contacted the offices of Lieberman and Dodd, both wrote letters to the INS indicating that they want to be kept informed on the case and that they wish the matter to be resolved quickly.
The Merrills have left the 8-month-old baby with a foster mother in Vietnam to return to their jobs while an appeal at the Ho Chi Minh City INS office is pending.
If this appeal fails, Cahill, Lieberman’s deputy director of constituent services, said the senator would further advocate for the Merrills during the next step, at the INS administrative appeals unit in Washington, D.C.
While neither senator can demand a specific outcome in the process, Cahill said, “where discretion can be given, we’ll advocate as hard and as best as we can. This is not a clear-cut case. It’s clear the Merrills are innocent victims and we want to help them as they make their case.”
If all appeals fail, Lieberman and Dodd may both push for humanitarian parole, a sort of immigration trump card generally regarded as a last resort in life-and-death situations.
Dodd inquired about humanitarian parole in his letter to the INS.
“Please let me know if your office would recommend Humanitarian Parole as a way to keep this family together if (orphan status) cannot be approved.”
Cahill, who called this adoption case the most difficult she has worked on, said Lieberman’s office understands the INS’s duty to protect babies and their parents from exploitation. But she felt that the Merrills, who are experiencing “anxiety and heartbreak” need help as well.
“There are other ways to see this. There is the humanitarian aspect,” Cahill said. “(The Merrills) shouldn’t give up hope of going home with a child.”
If all else fails, Biggs of the INS suggested another option: If at least one adoptive parent lives with the child outside the United States, for two years, the child may emigrate with them to the United States.
All of these steps may be unnecessary if the INS accepts the adoption agency director’s denial that he or any of AOH’s employees buy babies.
Though the director, Don Phan declined to comment about the Merrills, he read a statement from his home in Long Beach, Ca., saying that his business is charitable, and that he has been facilitating adoptions for more than two years. He said he has never offered to pay a birth mother for her baby.
Phan made one admission that may not bode well for the Merrills’ case. He admitted to occasionally paying for the assistance of a Vietnamese man who has been accused on an Internet adoption Web site of baby trafficking.
Phan said he began facilitating foreign adoptions by looking for orphans at orphanages, the Red Cross and other charities, but he said these days mothers approach him.
He refuted allegations that agents of Asian Orphans of Hope approach mothers and offer them cash for their babies, and then sell the babies and pocket the profits.
“I have not needed to look actively for people,” he said. “I have been contacted by single women unable to care for their children hoping that they will have a better life. I have never paid any birth mother. I have never authorized anyone to do so on my behalf.”
He declined to speculate why he was being accused.
In the Merrills’ INS documents, INS investigators in Vietnam said the chief agent of the agency, who is unnamed, and his family “confessed that every case for which Asian Orphans of Hope .Ÿ.Ÿ. had procured an infant for adoption involved outright purchase of the child.”
The INS Web site’s Vietnam section urges prospective adoptive parents to exercise “great caution.” Officials suggest researching as much as possible who adoption agencies employ in another country and asking questions throughout the adoption process.
“There is a sad lesson for those interested in adoption to learn from a tragic experience like this,” said Biggs, the INS official. “That is: to be very aware of who you are dealing with and who they are dealing with.”
Contact Joe Gould at email@example.com or at (860) 354-2275