Our babies "are not for sale," said Alik Alik, a member of the Marshall Islands Congress and the director of legal services on the islands who pushed for the new adoptions law. "They are human beings ... our most valuable commodities. It is morally wrong."

Adoptions are relatively common in Marshall Islands society, but traditionally the new parents have been members of the family and the adopted children often returned eventually to their birth parents. Alik himself was adopted by a member of his extended family.

A study conducted by Roby in 2001 found that 64 of the 73 Marshallese birth mothers she surveyed, or 87.6 percent, were told that the children they were giving up for adoption would return to the Marshall Islands when they reached adulthood. If they had known otherwise, the mothers said, they would not have agreed to give up their child.

Southern Adoptions' Web site says "birth parents are counseled about their decision. They give their babies/children up knowing they will have a good home with plenty to eat, shelter, clothing, toys and a college education."

But Roby called the "cultural misunderstanding" under which the birth mothers made their adoption decisions "startling."

Alik said he was particularly moved by the case of a friend, Clarence Clanry, whose daughter was adopted without his knowledge or consent.

"He cried and cried because he couldn't even find out where she was," Alik said.

Marshall Islands infants command a premium over children from countries such as China, Russia, Korea and Guatemala, which also are popular with Americans who want to adopt. This is because Marshallese mothers need no visa to enter the United States under the Compact of Free Association, which governs ties between the two countries; their children are American citizens if born on U.S. soil, reducing red tape; and the children are usually newborns, a quality attractive to adoptive parents who wish to bond immediately.

U.S. officials say there is no easy way to close the loophole that allows the commerce in Marshallese infants to flourish without restricting a key element of the compact - the right of islanders to travel freely to and from the United States.

"There's nothing we can do about it," said Albert V. Short, a Virginia businessman acting on special assignment for the State Department, who recently negotiated a compact extension that provides $1.1 billion in aid over the next 20 years and secures a long-term lease on a missile test range in the islands.

Hawaiian courts, in approving adoptions, do not take into account that the children are born to Marshallese brought to the United States in violation of their nation's law.

"To be honest, 99 percent of the time no one ever raises a question," said Calvin Murashige, a family court judge in Kauai. "The issue of the RMI [Republic of the Marshall Islands] law has never come up."

Tiny village, 27 names

In the village of Laura, in a small house a few feet from where the tide gently laps the tip of Majuro Atoll, the Rev. Eric Fisher and his wife, Barbara, talk about the many pregnant young women who disappear for months at a time, then return without their babies.

They jot down the names - 27 from this tiny village alone in the past five years. Johnny's was among them.

"There has to be something aggressive going on," said Fisher, pastor of the local Baptist church.

His wife said many of the mothers are told that the children will come back when they're older.

"We've tried to tell people it's not going to happen," she said.

Recruiters "come around looking," she said. "We call it soliciting."

The Fishers don't fault the adoptive parents.