A loophole in U.S. immigration law has left tens of thousands of international adoptees without U.S. citizenship. Some of these adoptees now risk deportation. Chicagoans Becky Belcore and Cori McMillan have been leading a national campaign to prevent the deportation of one of those adoptees, a 40-year-old man in Oregon named Adam Crapser.
“The outrageousness of the fact that you’re adopted by U.S. citizens, you come to this country, you grew up here and then you could actually be deported back to a country that you have never known... just the thought of being [sent] back to Korea is so insane to me,“ said Belcore.
Adam Crapser was adopted from South Korea in 1979. The family who first adopted him changed their minds and gave him up to foster care. He was in and out of group homes. Then he was adopted by another family, the Crapsers. They were abusive and were eventually convicted of several counts of criminal mistreatment and assault. Neither of these families nor the adoption agencies or the states that facilitated his adoption ever bothered to apply for his U.S. citizenship.
Now Crasper, who left Korea when he was three, is actually facing deportation because he’s got a criminal record.
At age 19, Crapser was arrested for breaking into his adoptive parents’ home. He says he was trying to retrieve a Korean bible and a pair of rubber shoes, the only things he’d brought with him from the orphanage in Korea.
He served time in prison for that crime and others he’s committed. In 2012 he managed to obtain the paperwork necessary to apply for a green card and that process set off an investigation, which ultimately put him at risk for deportation because of his criminal record. Now, Crapser, who is 40, risks being sent back to a country he left when he was a child. He doesn’t speak Korean.
Both Becky Belcore and Cori McMillan were adopted from South Korea when they were children. That’s part of what has drawn them to the Crapser case. “What’s happened to Adam, we know that could have happened to any of us,” said Belcore.
McMillan and Belcore are raising money to help pay for his legal fees and running an advocacy campaign to try to get the governor of Oregon to issue him a pardon.They want to see the court take into account the abuse and neglect they believe contributed to his crimes.
“The system should be held accountable,” said McMillan. She says the adoption agencies and the governments of South Korea and the U.S share the blame for what’s happened to him.
“So often times adoption is associated with gain, a family gains a child, a child gains a new home, but there is actually a lot of loss that comes with adoption...you don’t know what date you were born, you don’t know your name, don’t know who your parents are, you don’t know your ancestors, you don’t know your family history. And then in the case of international adoption you don’t know your country, you don’t know your language, you don’t know your culture, there is just so much loss and I think all adoptees feel that at some level,” said Belcore. She says it’s hard to imagine that on top of that kind of trauma, you could actually also face the prospect of deportation.
Even though hundreds of thousands of children have been adopted from foreign countries since World War II, international adoptees were not always granted automatic U.S. citizenship.
Finally, automatic citizenship
In 2000, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act.The legislation went into effect in February, 2001, and granted automatic citizenship to anyone who was adopted to U.S. citizens and was under the age of 18. That piece of legislation took years to pass and met with a great deal of resistance within Congress. Since the legislation was not retroactive, many adult adoptees were left out.
Susan Soon-Keum Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs for the adoption agency Holt International, worked on the Child Citizenship Act. She says they believed at the time that even though the legislation was imperfect, they’d be able to go back and fix it. “Then 9/11 came along,” she says, and then anything “ having to do with immigration just became so difficult,” she said.
Belcore and McMillan’s colleague Tammy Robinson was another one of those adoptees who was not covered by the Child Citizenship Act. She was adopted from an orphanage in South Korea when she was two and a half. As a teenager, hoping to search for her birth parents, she went to apply for a passport. That’s when she discovered she wasn’t a citizen.
“When I entered the country I remember there was a swearing in ceremony. You know, I had to salute the flag and sing ‘God bless America’ and I think my parents believed that was the citizenship ceremony, “ Robinson said.
With the help of her adoptive parents, Robinson was finally able to reconcile her case and obtain citizenship. She recalls it involved a lot of crying in front of a judge and a lengthy legal process that required she get re-adopted. “Not having citizenship is certainly a kind of trauma and stress,” she said.
Robinson actually moved back to South Korea four years ago to try to change the way international adoption works. Since the Korean War, hundreds of thousands of children have been adopted from South Korea. Robinson’s helped push through amendments the adoption laws in South Korea, a country where, she says, all too often, “single mothers and divorced mothers face pressure to give up their children.”
Along with her work on adoption legislation, Robinson is also trying to tackle the citizenship question. With help from Belcore and McMillan, she’s begun a process of trying to document just how many Korean adoptees are currently without citizenship in the United States. She’s got some preliminary estimates.
“We’re talking about, at least via agency-facilitated adoptions, maybe somewhere between 12,000 to 15, 000 adoptees, “ she says.
In surveying Korean adoptees, Robinson says she’s discovered there’s a range of reasons why the numbers are so high. She’s found many cases like her own, where families didn’t seem to realize they needed to take an extra step to apply for the child’s citizenship. But Robinson also says that in a number of cases, it was “part and parcel of a range of types of abuse that the child had” and “withholding citizenship was one of the forms of abuse that was inflicted.”
Robinson’s also been trying to track how many adoptees have already been deported back to South Korea. She says she’s aware of 30 cases but adds “ every week that we engage in this preliminary outreach I hear about a new case.”
Deportations to Brazil, Thailand
Along with South Korea, adoptees have also already been deported back to Brazil and Thailand. Susan Soon-Keum Cox says it’s unclear how many adoptees have been deported, but she has been involved with at least ten cases, including one adoptee who was caught up in a sweep and deported back to Thailand after he’d serve time in prison for stealing a car. “It was horrible talking to his mother, “ she recalled.
For Robinson, the survey is personal. “I feel in working in solidarity with other adoptees whose cases were not reconciled as teenagers together with adoptees who did obtain citizenship from their placement countries almost immediately upon being adopted ...that we share the same condition of being placed for intercountry adoption and it shouldn't be by luck (good or bad) that adoptees have citizenship now, or are able to have the right documentation to be able to travel and search for one's history,” she said. Robinson says she wants to see better post-adoption services for Korean adoptees who’ve been repatriated back to South Korea, so they don’t end up homeless, or in jail, or, like in one case, living at the airport in Seoul.
A push to change the law
In November, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced an amendment that would close the loophole. It would grant automatic U.S. citizenship to all international adoptees, including retroactive citizenship to those who were already 18 when the act first went into effect. It would also offer a pathway back to the United States for adoptees who’ve already been deported.
Kevin Vollmers, executive director of Gazillion Strong, worked with lawmakers on the bill. He says if it passes, the U.S. can live up to the promise it made to other countries, that “ we would take care of their kids.“
In the meantime, Adam Crapser is expected to appear in immigration court on December 10th.
Becky Belcore and Cori McMillan will be there.
Alexandra Salomon is a producer for Worldview. You can follow her on twitter @AlexandraSalomo