During a cold winter 117 years ago on January 13, over one hundred Korean immigrants arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii. After a long and dangerous voyage, these immigrants finally found a better life here in the land of opportunity. And for over a century, our communities have been made richer by our Korean American friends and neighbors.
Korean American Day is an opportunity for all of us to recognize the countless contributions the Korean American community has made to American life, from the private and public sectors to the world of art, food, education, and entrepreneurship. Since arriving in our nation in 1903 – starting off as farmworkers, wage laborers, and section hands – the story of Korean immigrants and the subsequent success of their descendants and other immigrant groups is one that many Americans can relate to.
As the congressional representatives for some of the largest Korean American communities in the country, we take great pride in the diversity of our districts. And we find ourselves fortunate that these proud Korean Americans have woven their heritage into ours. We celebrate together, break bread together, and learn about our respective cultures together.
With help from local organizations like the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles and the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta, which empower Korean Americans in our neighborhoods and communities, and national networks like the Korean American Grassroots Conference, through which thousands of grassroots members nationwide advocate for their communities, the voices of Korean Americans ring out across the country.
As members of Congress, we play a unique role in amplifying those voices to ensure they’re echoed in the House of Representatives. It’s a valuable reminder that we’re blessed to live in a country where all can be heard, one that strives to grant everyone the opportunity to live free and succeed. It’s a testament to our democracy and the American dream.
Yet, with every democracy comes the risk of partisan entrenchment. Here in Washington, we’ve certainly seen our fair share, and too often we’ve witnessed its paralyzing effect, preventing meaningful legislation from becoming law. But on Korean American Day, we call on our congressional colleagues to put aside politics and take decisive action to address some of the problems that impact our country’s Korean American community.
For example, according to Divided Families USA, roughly 100,000 Korean Americans have been separated from their family members since the Korean War. While the United States and North Korea do not have a formal reunification program, North and South Korea have held over 20 reunions for their divided families since 2000. However, American citizens of Korean descent have been excluded.
In March, the Congressional Korea Caucus endorsed H.R. 1771 – the Divided Families Reunification Act of 2019 – directing the U.S. Department of State to consult with South Korean officials to reunite Korean American families with family members in North Korea, as well as to fill the vacancy in the position of “Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea.”
While the House of Representatives has introduced a number of resolutions that have raised awareness about this difficult subject, this bill would compel the State Department to take diplomatic steps to address this tragedy. Sadly, these families have been separated since the Korean War and they deserve to see their loved ones again. Americans with relatives in North Korea are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Time is not on their side and it’s the role of Congress to provide relief for them and their loved ones.
Another piece of bipartisan legislation which Congress needs to pass is H.R. 2731 – the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019. According to the Adoptee Rights Campaign, between 25,000 and 49,000 children adopted to American households between 1945 and 1998 lack citizenship. And most of them weren’t even aware of their citizenship status until well into adulthood.
In the past, American families who adopted children from abroad were required to go through a lengthy and costly process to naturalize and gain citizenship for their adopted children. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 eliminated the need for adoptive families to apply to naturalize their newly-adopted children. However, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 only applied to adoptees who were under the age of 18 when it was enacted; it didn’t apply retroactively to adoptees who faced the same dilemma but aged into adulthood before the law took effect.
The Adoptee Citizenship Act would correct this problem by providing automatic citizenship to foreign-born children lawfully adopted by American families who turned 18 years old before the effective date of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. The Korean American community includes tens of thousands of adoptees that lack eligibility for citizenship despite their legal entry and life-long residency here. This legislation will close this loophole and grant the adoptees the right to citizenship they need and deserve.
Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days, but if the two of us can come together to support these proposals, surely our colleagues can follow our lead and help us enact meaningful reform to support the communities we represent. In 2005, both parties united to unanimously pass legislation recognizing the contributions of Korean Americans and make January 13th “Korean American Day” in honor of the arrival of the first Korean immigrants. Now, let’s honor their descendants by prioritizing policies that improve the quality of life of Korean American families and the communities they call home.
Rob Woodall represents Georgia’s 7th congressional district as a Republican in the United States House.