Ho Chi Minh City's American orphan

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A poor Saigon family fights to secure a passport for a child who lost his Vietnamese mother and was abandoned by his American father

Nguyen Do Thi Thu Giang never was very lucky. But her older brother, Nguyen Khac Lam, remembers her as kind.

Lam and Giang lived in their mother's house in District 1 with about a dozen relatives; they earned a meager wage working at a family photo printing business. Sometimes, Giang went to the local market and gave housewives backrubs to earn extra money.

In 1999, when a friend brought her an unwanted daughter, Giang broke custom and adopted the little girl. Three years later, she had a son of her own.

The father left, Lam says, and only returned to ask for money.

Four years ago, it seemed Giang's luck had changed.

Tran Kim Quy, a former neighbor who had married an American and resettled in Florida, visited Giang in the market and took pity on the single mother.

"[Giang], a poor woman living in the heart of Saigon had to have a heart if she was willing to adopt a kid," Quy told Vietweek by telephone. "I said I'd find her an American husband so she could migrate to work in the US."

A wedding photo of Nguyen Do Thi Thu Giang and Christopher Joseph Smith, a US citizen from Florida

When the old woman returned to her home in Florida, she began to play matchmaker. Quy thought of her neighbor, Christopher Joseph Smith, an unmarried Caucasian in his mid-sixties.

"He seemed gentle and educated," Quy said. "I asked him if he wanted to marry a Vietnamese woman," she said. "I told him about Giang a lovely mother of two. I gave [Smith] her email address and they contacted each other."

Welcome home

After a lengthy email correspondence, Smith first visited Giang in 2008, Lam says.

The elderly suitor continued to visit her family for two-month stretches and stayed at their crowded home, according to Lam. Even though Smith was 31 years Giang's senior, Lam says his family welcomed the American with open arms.

"We took care of him like a baby," Lam recalls. "He seemed like a nice man."

After a year of these visits, Smith married Giang in Ho Chi Minh City. In his wedding photo, he stands grinning in a dark suit, next to Thu Giang who glows in red silk and white makeup.

Smith continued to go back and forth from Florida to Vietnam, even after Thu Giang became pregnant.

"We knew he was retired," Lam said. "But he said he had to "˜take care of some business.'"

On November 20, 2009, Smith accompanied Lam and the family to the Tu Du hospital.

"Smith was so happy," Lam recalls. "He said "˜I'm going to shout for joy; this is the first son I've ever had.'"

Nguyen Anh Tuan (whom the family calls "Dylan") came out looking just like his father, according to Quy, the matchmaker.

"Smith and Dylan look like two drops of water," she said.

An orphan is born

Thu Giang died the day after giving birth to Dylan; her death certificate cites an allergic reaction to antibiotics as the cause.

At her funeral, Smith donned a traditional white robe and lit incense for his late wife.

Giang died in 2009, the day after giving birth to Nguyen Anh Tuan (picture above). His uncle says that Tuan (also known as "˜Dylan') is developmentally disabled. Smith denies he is the boy's father and has cut ties with the family.

Days later, Lam says his brother-in-law left for Florida.

"We didn't think it was strange," he said. "We thought he'd come back like he always did."

Dylan slept on the floor with his two orphaned half-siblings. He was doted on by his relatives and watched over by his grandmother, who is just two years older than Smith.

Over the next three months, Lam says Smith continued to send small amounts of money (about $400, in total) and chat with Lam on Yahoo Messenger. Lam would cut and paste his brother-in-law's words into Google translate.

One day, he found himself awkwardly asking why Smith had stopped sending money.

The reply was devastating.

"That's not my son, that's not my son," the text read.

In January 2011, Lam shelled out $250 to analyze Dylan's DNA. He sent the results to Smith, who refused to take a test himself.

"It was very frustrating," Lam said.

In pursuit of a passport

The 45 year-old picture framer, with a wife and children of his own, recalls feeling disgusted by Smith's rejection.

"We don't want his money," he says. "All we want is for Dylan to have American citizenship."

Lam says Dylan is a "slow" child, still unable to walk or talk. Doctors at the Ho Chi Minh City Children's Hospital 2 told Lam that the child's development had been impeded by the medication that caused his mother's death.

Believing, perhaps naively, that Dylan would have a better chance of getting care for his disabilities as a US citizen, Lam has continued to pursue the child's citizenship.

Lam says he sought help from the US Consulate (which gave him a list of lawyers in Vietnam), a local law firm (which offered to file a lawsuit in Florida for $5,000) and the office of Senator Bill Nelson.

Representatives from Nelson's office confirmed that they had reached out to Smith, who denied he was Dylan's father.

"Once [Smith] denied paternity and refused to submit to a DNA test, it became a legal issue so we sent [Lam] the list of lawyers," said a representative from Sen. Nelson's office, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The elusive Mr. Smith

Repeated attempts to contact Smith for this story failed.

An old email address provided by Quy (his neighbor) yielded no response.

Quy said her own efforts to confront Smith have been thwarted by Smith's American girlfriend. "She's as aggressive as a devil," she said.

Efforts to track Smith to properties in Maine and Florida were also unsuccessful. His Florida landline has been changed to an unlisted number, according to an automated recording.

Quy provided the address of a trailer unit in Port Saint Lucie.

But, a cell phone number provided by the management office of a trailerpark in Port Saint Lucie elicited a furious response from a Southern woman who declined to give her name or answer questions.

"Delete this number from your phone," she shouted. "Don't call here or I'll contact the police."

Quy suspects that Smith may be sick or dying.

The Amerasian trap

The difficulties Lam has faced underlie a total lack of options for American children abandoned abroad.

The overwhelming majority of these cases appear to be children born out of wedlock to US soldiers stationed throughout Asia.

Historically, they have been known as Amerasians.

During the 80s and 90s, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Japanese individuals who exhibited identifiable Caucasian or African-American physiology were granted permanent resident status in the US by the Amerasian Homecoming Act.

Approximately 87,000 Amerasians (and people claiming to be their relatives) emigrated from Vietnam alone between the late 1980s and early 90s. According to a State Department official, the offer applied only to those individuals who were born between 1962 and 1976.

Nowadays, Vietnamese children abandoned by American fathers have few options.

"There is no law or process that compels a US citizen to establish a citizenship claim for a child born abroad," wrote one US State Department official. The official added that she knew of no organization that provides legal assistance to children abandoned by US fathers.

Making a case for Dylan

As of press time, the US State Department had not provided specific response to questions about Dylan's case.

They maintain, however, that a child born under his circumstances does not need an American father's help to obtain a passport. They need only submit proof of the father's citizenship, documentation of the marriage and proof of the father's residence in the US prior to birth.

"Unfortunately, in practice, what the State Department says just doesn't apply," said Cal Nguyen, a Vietnamese American attorney who has provided Lam with free legal advice.

Nguyen points out that the State Department requires a sworn statement signed by Smith and information that only he could provide. For a poor Vietnamese citizen like Lam, that information is practically impossible to produce without help from Smith.

"Unless the Consulate waives its requirements for an Affadavit, I don't see any way of getting this done without the father's cooperation."

Three legal aid attorneys based in Florida claimed to have never handled such a case or even heard of one. Suing Smith (the only option presented to Lam, so far) could prove impossible, if not prohibitively expensive.

"With most [paternity cases] you have to reside in the state for 6 months to file suit," said Tin Thanh Nguyen, an attorney based in North Carolina who provides family law and immigration assistance to Vietnamese immigrants. "The kid has never resided here so no state is going to touch it."

However, Linda Osberg believes the case is open and shut. The high-powered Miami immigration lawyer who once represented Elian Gonzalez a Cuban child whose mother died at sea en route to Florida and was ultimately returned to his father in Havana believes the child is a born US citizen.

Because Smith and Giang were married when they had Dylan, the law presumes that Dylan is his son. As of press time, Osberg had dispatched an investigator to track down Smith.

"Let's get this kid a passport and some money," she said.

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