Mexico's Bargain Babies

'I probably average two calls a week inquiring about Mexico," says Brent Yoder, director of the Mission Valley-based international adoption agency Adoption Options. "I'm one of the few agencies that even indicates that I can help people with Mexico adoptions. So I get calls from all over the country."

Yoder isn't boasting. Calls to adoption agencies all over San Diego resulted in repeated referrals to Yoder and Adoption Options. But despite being one of the few adoption agents that will deal with Mexican adoptions, Yoder's response to such inquiries is a warning. "When people come to me and say, 'I want to adopt in Mexico,' " Yoder explains, "I say, 'I've got to warn you to start off with, adoptions in Mexico are extremely difficult.' "

What makes it so complicated? "DIF, to be blunt with you," Yoder answers.

DIF, pronounced "deef," is an acronym for the Mexican federal agency Desarollo Integral de la Familia, or Integral Development of the Family. A wing of the attorney general's office, it's the agency responsible for the care of orphans, abandoned children, and children who have been taken from their parents by the courts. Traditionally headed by the first lady of Mexico, the governor's wife, and the mayor's wife at the federal, state, and local levels, respectively, DIF coordinates adoptions of its wards and also plays a role in privately arranged adoptions of Mexican babies by Americans.

Bianka Ramos Fernandez is the head of adoptions for Tijuana's DIF office, which is located in La Mesa, about five miles east of downtown in the Tijuana River Valley. Though she can't give an exact number of children in the DIF system of orphanages and foster-care homes in Tijuana, she estimates that the figure is "over 200."

Of those, none are available for adoption by Americans, at least not as things stand now. That hasn't always been the case. "We used to allow people from the United States to adopt," Ramos explains, "but our director decided a few months ago to suspend adoptions to non-Mexicans. It was a policy that was adopted in response to minor trafficking that was going on. People were doing adoptions across the border that weren't perfectly legal. We didn't want be part of that, so we limited our adoptions to American citizens. But we may re-open the policy to include Americans because we have so many children. And though we have a lot of applicants for adoption, not all will qualify."

Applicants for adoption of DIF wards have to meet a 25-point list of qualifications. Chief among them are, prospective parents must be at least 25 and at least 17 years older than the child they will adopt. They must earn at least 10,000 pesos -- about $1100 -- per month. That figure was recently raised from 8000 pesos (around $890) per month. They should own a house or condo. Renters aren't disqualified but will be passed over in favor of home owners. Singles as well as married couples may adopt, but couples living together without the benefit of marriage may not. "If you are trying to raise a child correctly," Ramos explains, "what kind of moral teaching or example are you teaching the child by living together?"

Provided these qualifications are met and verified by DIF social workers, an applicant then submits to a thorough psychological evaluation performed by a DIF psychologist. "Also," Ramos says, "a socioeconomic study is done by a social worker. The social worker goes to your house and checks things: how many bedrooms, how neat and clean the place is, whether it would be a good place to raise children."

Once all studies have been done and their application approved, hopeful parents must wait for the next conference of an adoptions council, which meets "every three or six months." The local director, the wives of the governor and the mayor, a DIF psychologist, and Baja California's "attorney general for the protection of the minor and family" make up the council. Once convened, the group assigns children to applicants. "They look at their appearance, and they make a judgment over which one would be the best match. They try to match up the child with a similar-looking adopting parent. And the parent doesn't have a choice."

The assignments are also made on the basis of age. "For example, if there is a couple in their 30s, they are eligible for children between three and four years old, not newborns, because newborns require more energy. [People in their 30s] are not young enough to keep up with a newborn baby. Someone between 50 and 55 [the maximum age] will be assigned a child 10 to 12 years old. They will make exceptions in the case of siblings because we don't split siblings."

The adopting parents aren't legally bound to accept the child assigned to them. But, assuming they do accept the child, the adoption council's assignment alone does not make the adoption final. "You will be able to take the child to your house," Ramos explains, "but it is still not yours legally. You are a foster parent. And then they start the process of officially taking the custody from the parents, wherever they are, so they can give them to you."

At this point, if the child is of unknown origin, DIF will run television and newspaper ads with pictures of the child, asking for the parents or relatives of the child to come forward. Any relative that comes forward and wants to adopt the child will be given prior claim. If none do, or if they don't want to adopt the child, he/she is officially declared an orphan and the adoption can then be finalized by the court.

The process is not a quick one. "To give you an example," Yoder says, "in the past year and a half I've dealt with two families, American families who actually ran orphanages in Mexico through their church affiliation. Both of them tried to adopt, and it took a year and a half to complete their adoptions. And they had no idea whether they were going to be successful or not. That's how hard it is to work with DIF."

Yoder adds, "I probably shouldn't blame DIF. It's the way the laws are set up, the way they're applied, how confusing the laws are and how one region interprets them one way and another region interprets them another way. It's just a mess."

"It wasn't like this many years ago," says Adan Maldonado, a Tijuana lawyer who coordinates adoptions as part of his 30-year law practice. "There weren't so many requirements. The first one that I did, it was about 20 years ago, and you just had to show a medical examination, show that you don't have any psychological problems, that you are at least 17 years older than the child, show what your income was, and have witnesses saying that it would benefit the child. That was it. But people took advantage of how easy it was, sometimes in bad ways. There was child prostitution, organ traffic, and everything like that. So, like everything else in life, adoption became very complicated.

"Now," Maldonado continues, "you would have to go to the immigration officer and then the Mexican State Department. You would have to obtain, first of all, your legal residence in the country, then you would have to go to the State Department for your visa and especially the visa for the child should be obtained in Mexico City. And the gateway to cross legally with the child is through Ciudad Juárez, which is opposite of El Paso, Texas."

"That's because," Brent Yoder explains, "the [U.S. State Department] only allows certain places to process the adoption petitions. Another example: I do adoptions out of Russia and Kazakhstan. And if you're adopting in Kazakhstan, you can't just fly back home with the child. You have to exit through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow."

"It would be one thing," Yoder complains, "if it were predictable and you could guarantee that you would get the child when it was all over."

As it is, prospective parents have no certainty that they'll be rewarded with a child when they've jumped through the last hoop held up by DIF. That's why, when his clients are set on Mexico, Yoder recommends private-arrangement adoptions. "I steer them toward private-arrangement infant adoptions. I tell them that they need to adopt a newborn before [the baby] gets into the DIF system."

That process involves working with a Mexican lawyer to help find the child and secure all the necessary court clearances and documents for the adoption. Though easier than an official DIF adoption, Yoder warns that there are dangers in private adoptions in Mexico. "You have to be very aware of the attorneys that you work with, because there are lots of disreputable attorneys and other attorneys who simply lack knowledge of the international system. They may end up accomplishing adoption, but then the child can't be immigrated. I've had a number of people who have lost children they were trying to adopt down there. They either could not get the adoption completed, or they completed the adoption in Mexico but could not bring the child back. That happens frequently, and most of the time it happens through ignorance [on the part of the attorney] of international adoptions."

Yoder explains, "You need to have approval from the INS to bring the child back, and you need to have it beforehand. And the child has to meet what's called the 'orphan standard,' which means he has to be legally considered an orphan in Mexico. You have to have that document [which DIF issues]. Without it, you can't bring the child back."

Aside from an attorney's knowledge of international adoption proceedings, another worry, Yoder says, is ethics. "I know that in the Mexican system, a lot of things that would look like corruption to us are for them the way they've done business for a long time. For instance, a lot of times they won't tell you no or yes, or they won't give you all the information you need until you give them more money. Americans would see it as corrupt, and they see it as just the way that they operate. Still, overall you do need to worry about corruption. People have gone down there and gotten halfway through an adoption and then have gotten extorted for more money. That happens -- not just in Mexico but in a lot of countries -- to people who go on their own and try to do independent adoptions. They'll get partway through the adoption and then the attorney will say, 'Oops, I need $10,000 more.' My first adoption in Mexico was with a family who had gone down on their own. They went down regularly to Tijuana, and they had contacts there. He was an attorney here, and he felt like he could negotiate an independent adoption on his own. They came to me after the fact, when they realized that he couldn't get past immigration. He came to me for help in dealing with the INS. He told me his adoption ended up costing him about $40,000 because he got extorted. At some point, to avoid the extortion, all you can do is give up the child and back out."

Yoder works with an attorney in Tijuana whom he trusts, and the three Mexico adoptions he averages per year have been going smoothly. He says hopeful parents wishing to adopt in Mexico should expect to spend $18,000 to $19,000 for everything. To those who think that sounds high, he says, "Actually, that's a pretty reasonable price compared to world standards. It's a really time-intensive, very difficult process doing international adoptions. If you adopt an infant from Russia, you're looking at $26,000 to $36,000. Guatemala is going to be $30,000. So, actually, on world standards, especially considering how complicated they are and how expensive they are, Mexico tends to fall towards the lower end of cost. The lowest would be probably an adoption in India, which would be maybe $14,000 or $15,000."

But though Mexico is a relative bargain for international adoptions, Yoder says the hassle and unsurety makes it a less-desirable option than other nations. "There are much more stable adoption programs in other countries. In Latin America, Guatemala has a much better program because you can predict it. You know what's going to happen."

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