Attempts to regulate the Marshallese adoption market do little to address the desperation that helps drive it.

It’s not easy to make a living on the narrow strips of land that make up the sprawling island nation, and many Marshallese women say they do not see a future for themselves on their rapidly shrinking islands. Sea level rise is eating away at the relatively small stretches of solid ground the Marshallese people call home.

Editor's Note

Loreta Bautista was working at a Chinese restaurant on Majuro for $1.50 an hour when she discovered she was pregnant. She didn’t know the father — the pregnancy was the result of a one-night stand, and her friends later told her they thought the man went back to Indonesia, his home country.

Bautista and her older sister, Antonia, were sharing a home with seven family members — including Bautista’s 2-year-old son.

“It was hard to find a job,” she said through a translator. “And when I did, I don’t get enough pay.”

A woman sits on a newly constructed sea wall in Majuro in 2017. Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat

When Bautista was six months pregnant, she says she and her sister bumped into adoption lawyer Gordon Benjamin outside of a store near their house. Benjamin, she said, asked the two young women if they knew anyone who was pregnant and might want to give up their babies.

Bautista went looking for him the next day: putting her baby up for adoption in exchange for starting a new life in the U.S. was an opportunity the family couldn’t pass up.

“I asked him for help, because life back home is really hard, and I could not support myself,” Bautista said.

It is illegal in the Marshall Islands to solicit birth mothers for adoption. But Benjamin remembers the encounter with Bautista much differently. He said he had heard about her pregnancy through the grapevine. When he ran into her that day,  he said, he urged her to go through the official government process. But Bautista’s mother, already in Arkansas, wanted her to come to the U.S., he said, and so Benjamin arranged for her to stay with a pastor who works with him in Hilo while waiting to give birth.

“I’m not stupid,” he said, referring to soliciting women for adoptions. “I’m not going to say all those types of things.”

Many players involved in the illicit adoption market argue that they are helping women seize a better opportunity for not just themselves, but their entire family.

Justin Aine, a well-known adoption fixer in Arkansas, says he knows women back home in the Marshall Islands who can’t afford diapers, and cover their children in dirty blankets. “They don’t have food,” he said. “When I look at the kids, they’re going to school with no slippers. No shoes.”

So Aine says he tells the women to move to the states to get a better life. “Maybe, when I bring you to Arkansas, you can get a job, get money, and then bring the rest of your family.”

Loreta Bautista moved to Arkansas a little more than a year after giving birth to a daughter in Hawaii. Her sister got a job in Hilo, saved up money for a ticket, and joined her in Arkansas a few months later.

Soon after, Antonia Bautista proudly shared a photo on Facebook of a new badge identifying her as a worker at a Tyson Foods processing plant.

Maize Luke, the pastor who housed the sisters — and hosts other pregnant Marshallese women in Hawaii for an adoption attorney — calls them a successful case in his “program.”

“I’m really proud of them,” Luke says. “To me, it’s a reward. Tears come down from our eyes when we get these kind of reports.”

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