The Accidental Expats

When the adoption laws changed in Guatemala, many American parents were left stranded with their children—some for years. Will they ever make it home?

Cheri and Gary had waited seven months for this call. In February 2006, they’d signed paperwork with an adoption agency in the hopes of bringing home a child from Guatemala. When the agency called on September 28 to tell them they had been matched with a newborn, they were overjoyed, but with the call came the first indication that things would not be easy. The agency told Cheri rumors were swirling that Guatemala’s then-president, Oscar Berger, was planning to stop all international adoptions. If she and Gary wanted the baby, they had one day to get down there.

“I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl,” remembers Cheri, “but I called Gary at work and told him to come home immediately. We had three hours to get to the airport.”

“Everyone expects a kickback. They know that people will do anything for their babies—they know you’ll keep paying.”

Within 24 hours they were in Guatemala City, holding 10-day-old Eliana. She was brought to their hotel room, where they were allowed to keep her for the rest of their visit. They signed the paperwork required by the Guatemalan government, then returned to Oklahoma, sure that the child they had bonded with would soon be coming home with them. On their flight back, however, Cheri began crying. “I could not stand being away from Eliana,” she says. “We decided I would move down to Guatemala to foster her for the remainder of the process.” It would be a few months at the absolute most, they thought.

What happened instead was that Cheri became part of a community of involuntary expats trapped in Guatemala for months or even years, all waiting for the government to allow them to take their babies back to the US. “I felt like Eliana and I were being held hostage for 16 months,” says Cheri of the time she spent stuck in the small colonial town of Antigua, where most of these would-be parents ended up settling. “I was scared to death. We were powerless.”

These parents’ ordeals can be traced to December 2007, when Guatemala imposed new restrictions on international adoptions. When the law was initially enacted, the government said that cases already in progress would be exempted from the rule change and not be affected. But this exemption never occurred, and cases that were midway through the process ended up in limbo: The government wouldn’t allow the babies to leave the country—making up the new rules as they went along—and the parents, who had already begun caring for their children, were unwilling to leave without them. Some of these parents remain there still.

The US Embassy in Guatemala did not respond to repeated inquiries about how many American families are currently trapped in the adoption process. According to the Guatemalan National Center for Adoptions, however, as of August, there were at least 1,400 children still in the country, waiting for international procedures to be completed. Of these, officials estimate that approximately 60 percent are headed to the US.

Cheri flew to Guatemala in early December 2006, planning to return to the United States no later than the following spring. Spring came and went. A year went by, and she was still stuck in Guatemala. Finally, in March 2008, after 16 months, she was able to bring Eliana home to the US.

Despite their saga, Cheri and Gary count themselves among the lucky ones. While in Guatemala, they rented a house with Erin and John, another American couple who, with their daughter, are still trapped in Guatemala's adoption process. They’ve been stuck there for nearly two years. Their daughter, Azucena, was born July 1, 2006; they flew down that October to meet her. Like Cheri and Gary, they were allowed to keep her in the hotel with them during their visit.

“It felt like we already knew her,” says Erin, about the first time they saw Azucena. “We brought lots of different baby outfits—I loved changing her clothes.” Like most parents, they took hundreds of pictures and emailed them to family and friends in Memphis.

It was during this visit that they first heard the rumors that had brought Cheri and Gary rushing down from Oklahoma. An entry on her personal blog dated October 7, 2006, foreshadows the determination Erin would show over the next two years:

“We’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that she becomes our daughter. I was holding her on my lap when I first read about the scare regarding a potential executive order that would essentially halt intercountry adoption from Guatemala… In the course of about 30 seconds, I had already—in my mind—sold our house, quit my job, got a job teaching English in Antigua, and become a Guatemalan citizen.”

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After a brief trip home, they returned to Guatemala a second time, and were able to spend eight days with Azucena. But the visit was disconcerting. “We had to stay in the hotel the entire time,” says Erin. “Our lawyer said they were taking babies away from adoptive parents out on the street.”

When she realized that it would take at least a few more months to get this resolved, Erin made the decision to move to Guatemala and foster Azucena. “I had read a lot about Reactive Attachment Disorder,” she explains, “and I wanted to make the transition for my daughter as smooth as possible. Babies begin to develop stranger anxiety when they are eight or nine months old, so I really couldn’t afford more time away from her.”

She took a leave of absence from her job as a marketing analyst at a Fortune 500 company, and moved to Guatemala in March 2007. John joined her after finishing graduate school in May. Eventually, Erin was forced to resign from her company, slashing their family income. Unemployment took a toll on her self-esteem. “I loved my job,” she says. “They held the position open for me for as long as they could—a whole year—but we never thought this would take so long.”

Apart from the high cost of international adoption, the couple has had to keep up with the mortgage on their Tennessee home while paying rent in Guatemala. John, who holds an advanced degree in medical anthropology, is now working in Antigua as a database programmer. In order to help make ends meet, Erin has set up shop online, selling crafts that she makes out of Guatemalan textiles.

They’re one of the few couples fortunate enough to be together during the process. Gary, at great expense, flew to Guatemala 14 times during the 16 months Cheri spent there. Deepening the money pit were the expectations of corrupt government officials and adoption facilitators. “Everyone expects a kickback,” says Cheri. “They know that people will do anything for their babies—they know you’ll keep paying.” They were forced to take out a second mortgage on their house and dip into their retirement fund. They’ve spent well over $80,000 on this process.

Rumors of a government crackdown would occasionally spread through Antigua. One such rumor held that a judicial order had been granted to the police, allowing them to question any foreigner seen with a native baby. Panic took hold of the expat fostering community. “We were terrified,” says Erin. “We went into a virtual house arrest.” Cheri spent the next five months afraid to step out of the house she shared with Erin and John. A knock on the door was cause for alarm. “If there were two adults in the house, [Gary or I] would take the babies and hide in the bathtub, while the other one answered the door,” she recalls.

Cheri’s story at least ended happily. Nine months since her arrival in the US, Eliana is thriving. She attends a bilingual preschool in Tulsa three times a week, and has already bonded with her cousins.

Azucena’s adoption, however, remains ensnared. She talks to her grandparents on Skype several times a week, and spreads her arms out like wings, pretending she’s on a plane to Memphis. “She keeps talking about the dogs and bunnies we have at home, which she’s only seen in pictures” says Erin. They had hoped to get her home in time for Christmas, but now their goal is the end of January. Though she’s now been in Guatemala just shy of 20 months, Erin is adamant that no matter how long it takes, she will never consider returning home without her daughter.

“Never,” she says. “Not for a minute.”

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, El Diario NY and the Orange County Register.