Adoptees Say Deportation After a Lifetime in the U.S. is Like ‘the Death Sentence’

Adam Crapser near his home in Seoul. He is one of at least half a dozen adoptees in South Korea who were deported from the United States because their adoptive parents failed to get them citizenship.
Jean Chung for The New York Times

Phillip Clay was adopted at 8 into an American family in Philadelphia.

Twenty-nine years later, in 2012, after numerous arrests and a struggle with drug addiction, he was deported back to his birth country, South Korea. He could not speak the local language, did not know a single person and did not receive appropriate care for mental health problems, which included bipolar disorder and alcohol and substance abuse.

On May 21, Mr. Clay ended his life, jumping from the 14th floor of an apartment building north of Seoul. He was 42.

To advocates of the rights of international adoptees, the suicide was a wrenching reminder of a problem the United States urgently needed to address: adoptees from abroad who never obtained American citizenship. The Adoptee Rights Campaign, an advocacy group, estimates that 35,000 adult adoptees in the United States may lack citizenship, which was not granted automatically in the adoption process before 2000.

Mr. Clay is believed to be just one of dozens of people, legally adopted as children into American families, who either have been deported to the birth countries they left decades ago or face deportation after being convicted of crimes as adults. Some did not even know they were not American citizens until they were ordered to leave.

Adoptees from other countries, like Vietnam, Thailand and Brazil, have faced deportation. But the sheer number of children adopted from South Korea, once a leading source of children put up for adoption abroad, has made it the most visible example of the issue, and of the enormous challenges returnees face as they try to once again navigate a foreign culture, this time with little or no assistance.

Many have nowhere to go, often living on the streets. In South Korea, one deportee served a prison term for robbing a bank with a toy gun. Another, who like Mr. Clay had mental health problems, has been indicted twice on assault charges.

“Deportation is like the death sentence to them,” said Hellen Ko, a chief counselor at the government-run Korea Adoption Services, who monitored Mr. Clay as a caseworker. “They had a hard time adjusting to life in America. It gets even harder for them when they return here.”

The government here does not know how many of the 110,000 South Korean children adopted into American families since the 1950s have been deported. When the United States deports Koreans, it does not tell Seoul if they are adoptees. At least six cases have been documented, though, and officials here say that they have been unable to determine the citizenship status of 18,000 Korean adoptees in the United States.

Once back in their birth country, they are on their own and often go undocumented.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Choe Sang-Hun