Encarnación Romero was an undocumented immigrant working at a poultry plant in Missouri when she was arrested in 2007 during a raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She was jailed for two years for federal identity theft, because she used a fake name and Social Security number when applying for her job (those charges, notably, would not stick if they were filed today — the Supreme Court rejected the use of identity theft prosecutions in simple immigration cases like this one). In prison and unable to care for her infant son herself, Romero did what many parents would have done (and what my own parents certainly would have done): She asked her sister to look after the baby, Carlitos, until she could come home. The sister was already overwhelmed with her own three children, and sought help through her church. An acquaintance took Carlitos to the home of the church’s minister, and the minister and his wife contacted another couple who were looking to adopt.
Romero’s parental rights were then terminated, and Carlitos was adopted by Seth and Melinda Moser.
Unsurprisingly, Romero did not have adequate legal representation, and does not speak English. Lawyers for the Mosers, who adopted Carlitos, say that Romero abandoned her child, and “She went by different aliases, and therefore all the correspondence that the court sent her, and that I sent her, even that her attorney sent her, all came back refused.” Romero’s attorneys, though, say that while she did seek employment under an assumed name, she gave ICE officers her real name shortly after being arrested. The fact that she was booked under a false name doesn’t mean that she abandoned her child — it means that there was a clerical error (and possibly that there wasn’t proper translation, and that she didn’t have a lawyer).
The whole thing is horrifying. And of course the public argument is coming down to nice adoptive parents vs. illegal immigrant jailed mother — with “the best interests of the child” used as a tool to advance injustice:
Rick Schnake, the Joplin attorney representing the Mosers, said that removing the child from the family he has known for the past few years would only compound the tragedy. He argued that the best interests of the child are served by keeping him with his adoptive parents.
“This little boy is four years old. He doesn’t speak Spanish, he speaks English,” Schnake said. “I don’t mean to be caustic about it but it’s not the child’s fault she was (in jail).”
Considering that Romero would not be jailed for the exact same act had she been arrested today instead of in 2007, it’s not so clear that it’s totally her fault she was in jail, either. And it’s not her fault that her parental rights were terminated, and that her son was taken away from her. It’s not the child’s fault that he was part of a predatory adoption, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in his best interests to stay with those adoptive parents. Adding to the mess is the fact that the adoptive parents hired the attorney who acted on behalf of the birth mother during the court proceedings to terminate Romero’s parental rights.
A lot of the commentary on this story says it’s a “tragedy for all involved” and that we’re all hoping for “the best outcome for everyone.” Except, well, no. It is a tragedy for all involved, but it’s more of a tragedy for the woman who had her baby taken from her and for the baby who was taken than for the couple who knew that parental rights hadn’t properly been terminated, but apparently thought that their desire for a child trumped another woman’s rights to raise the child she carried, birthed, loved and raised for his first six months of life. I don’t want to impute too many motives on the Mosers, because who knows what the whole story is from their perspective. But I do think it’s fair to expect that adoptive parents will make every reasonable effort to figure out where their baby is coming from, and will act as ethically as possible in a situation which is often fraught with inequality and injustice and coercion. I’m not sure it’s clear that the Mosers did that here. I can understand why, having raised this child for four years, they wouldn’t want to give him up. But unless I’m missing something (and I might be), it seems that they made a whole series of unethical, bad decisions on the front end and now want everyone to look the other way. I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for that position.
The undercurrent in all of this is the idea that the Mosers are de facto better parents than Romero because Romero is brown and “illegal.” And that’s an idea that plays pretty well in much of the United States. I hope Romero gets her son back, and that this case can be a lesson that predatory adoptions and aggressive anti-immigrant policies only serve to harm women, children and families.