Don't try to sell Sarah Saga on a "McJobs America." Only a year ago this 24-year-old California-born woman was trapped in Saudi Arabia, where she had been taken at age six by her Saudi father in violation of a U.S. custody order. By contrast, the dawn of 2004 finds Miss Saga reunited with her mother, attending Fresno City College and supporting herself by working at the local McDonald's.
There is, however, one huge catch. Though the Saudis let her go, it was under the condition that she leave behind her two young children: her three-year-old daughter, Hanin, and her five-year-old son, Ibrahim. Miss Saga says she agreed because she feared her father would kill her if she remained -- and because her Saudi (now ex-) husband assured her that she could call the children when she wanted and that she could even come back for visits.
None of that, of course, has turned out to be true. In many ways that makes Sarah Saga a good metaphor for the progress that has been made on this issue and the distance we still have to go. The State Department tells us, encouragingly, that this past year five other American women sought refuge in U.S. diplomatic facilities and were granted visas -- three over objections from their Saudi husbands. In addition, says State, 10 children who had been abducted or wrongfully detained were returned, and 27 other children left the country with their U.S. mothers.
That's welcome news. The downside is that for too many American women, the choice is still between freedom and their children. Worse still, in cases like Miss Saga's, Saudi law and custom isn't even the only obstacle. Americans who find themselves in her predicament -- taken there as girls, married off and now with children of their own -- are further victimized by a quirk of U.S. law that most Americans don't even know exists.
The relevant provision comes from Title 8, Section 1401(g) of the U.S. Code, which stipulates that a child born to an American parent overseas is considered a U.S. citizen only if his or her U.S. parent was physically present in the U.S. for five years or more prior to the child's birth. In addition, the parent must have spent at least two of those five years when he or she was age 14 or older.
Whatever sense this physical-presence requirement might make for an American who chooses to make another life overseas, in Saudi Arabia it is having the unintended consequence of punishing the victims. Jim Jatras, a former U.S. Senate staffer now with a law firm in Washington, D.C., puts it this way: "These U.S. provisions perversely reward the kidnapper, because it gives him a great incentive to keep his daughter in Saudi Arabia and marry her off to have children who will then not have the protections that an American passport brings."
Mr. Jatras says the easiest solution would be for U.S. officials to construe the residency requirements as having been met in cases where the individual's physical absence from the U.S. is the result of a criminal abduction. Better still would be for Congress to spell this out in clarifying legislation. Unfortunately, when Indiana Republican Dan Burton was rotated out of his chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee, these women and children lost their strongest champion on Capitol Hill.
The more's the pity, because if ever there were an American who appreciates freedom, it's Miss Saga. "Every day I wake up and find more things about America that I love," she tells us. She adds that, as both a Muslim and a child who was deprived of her own mother, she would never seek to cut her ex-husband off from his children. All she desires is some civilized arrangement where the kids could spend time with both.
We understand that the limited advances we have seen in 2003 will not mean much to those American women still cut off from their kids. Less understandable is why no one in Congress has stood up to fight against a legal provision being used against already victimized American mothers and their children.