This past February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers knocked on an apartment door in Vancouver, Wash., looking for a man named Adam Crapser. A 39-year-old former barbershop owner and auto-insurance claims estimator, Crapser was now the married stay-at-home father of three children, with another baby on the way. He lived a mostly quiet life, playing the guitar and ukulele, looking after a rescue dog and taking his children to the park and the science museum. But the ICE agents at the door were there to inform him that the agency was opening deportation proceedings that could send him to South Korea.
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Crapser was born Shin Song Hyuk, to a mother described in his adoption papers as “Amerasian.” When Crapser was 3, he and his older sister were abandoned and ended up at an orphanage three hours outside of Seoul. A worker there noted that Crapser cried often, played alone and wanted his sister in his sight at all times. After five months, he was on his way to a new home in the United States, along with his sister and a handful of possessions: a pair of green rubber shoes, a Korean-language Bible and a worn stuffed dog.
The first family that adopted Crapser and his sister fought viciously and punished the children frequently; Crapser remembers being whipped and forced to sit in a dark basement. After six years, the couple decided they no longer wanted the children they had adopted and the siblings were split up. Crapser bounced between foster homes and a boys’ home before landing with a family in Oregon.
His new parents, Thomas and Dolly Crapser, had a house full of foster and adopted children, as many as ten at a time. Their punishments, too, were frequent and even more brutal than his first adoptive parents’. Dolly, Crapser says, slammed the children’s heads against door frames and once hit him in the back of the head with a two-by-four after he woke her up from a nap. Thomas duct-taped the children’s mouths shut, Crapser says. He also burned Crapser’s hands and once broke his nose when Crapser couldn’t find Thomas’s car keys. Neither Thomas nor Dolly returned my repeated phone calls to discuss Crapser’s account, but the state ultimately did charge the couple with dozens of counts of child abuse, including rape, sexual abuse and criminal mistreatment; they were convicted in 1992 on several counts of criminal mistreatment and assault, and Thomas was convicted on one count of sexual abuse, though he served just 90 days in prison.
When Crapser was 16, he got in an argument with Dolly over using the phone, and Thomas kicked him out of the house. He moved into a homeless shelter, then stayed on friends’ couches and, finally, in his car. Then, one day, he broke into the Crapsers’ home in hopes of reclaiming the few remaining bits of his past life in Korea: his rubber shoes and his Korean Bible.
Police arrested Crapser after he broke in through a window. He pleaded guilty to burglary and served 25 months in prison. Once he was back on the outside, his troubles continued. Not long after his release, he was found guilty of unlawful firearm possession. A couple of misdemeanors followed and, later, an assault conviction after a fight with a roommate. Two years ago, he violated a protection order taken out against him by an ex-girlfriend with whom he had a child, by trying to telephone his son. “I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I’m not proud of it,” Crapser told me last week. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way.”
But recently Crapser has worked to get his life on track. He married, became a full-time dad and began trying to settle into a long-term job. The problem was that, legally, he couldn’t hold one. None of Crapser’s adoptive parents, nor the adoption agency that brokered his arrival in the United States, had ever bothered to file for his U.S. citizenship.
After years of fighting, he was finally able to get his adoption paperwork from Thomas Crapser and in 2012 applied for a green card. Those applications typically trigger a Department of Homeland Security background investigation, which in Crapser’s case turned up his old convictions — a criminal record that made him subject to deportation.
It’s a Kafkaesque episode: Crapser’s various crimes may have warranted the punishments he received, but deportation to a country in which he had barely lived? In fact, Crapser has company. No one knows exactly how many international adoptees in the United States don’t have U.S. citizenship; in some cases, adoptees don’t find out themselves until they apply for federal student loans, try to get a passport or register to vote. But at least three dozen other international adoptees have also faced deportation charges or have been deported to countries like Thailand, Brazil and South Korea.
Adoption experts in South Korea — the world’s top exporter of children for American adoption at the time that Crapser was sent to the United States told me they know of at least 10 to 12 deported adoptees in the country, including one who served in the U.S. military. In 2000, a 22-year-old Brazil-born, Ohio-raised adoptee named Joao Herbert was deported from the United States after he was caught selling 7.5 ounces of marijuana. Four years later, he was shot dead in the slums of Campinas, a city just north of São Paulo. According to a newspaper report at the time, the killers were drug-dealing teenagers who Herbert had sought to help smuggle guns in order to raise the money he needed to sneak back into the United States.
Congress tried to address the problem in 2000 by passing the Child Citizenship Act, which granted automatic citizenship to children adopted by U.S. citizens. But the law only covered adoptees who were under the age of 18 when it went into effect. The omission left adult adoptees vulnerable to an immigration law passed by Congress a few years earlier, which allowed the federal government to deport noncitizen immigrants who were found guilty of any of a wide range of “aggravated felonies.” Under immigration law, those crimes includes battery, forged checks and selling drugs.
With so much at stake for their children, why wouldn’t parents have filed citizenship papers? In some cases, outright neglect was to blame. But in others, parents didn’t understand that their children didn’t automatically become citizens when they finalized the adoption. Other parents simply put off dealing with the cumbersome paperwork.
One woman I spoke with told me that her adoptive mother, who had raised eight adopted children in all, died of breast cancer before she could file the application for her daughter’s citizenship. (To protect her privacy – she fears more attention from ICE – the woman asked me not to identify her or the country in which she was born.) In 2012, a few years after she was convicted of writing forged checks, ICE ordered her deported, and although the agency ultimately didn’t follow through on the order, it has also never officially closed the case, she told me. She now lives in a legal limbo, unable to get a green card or a driver’s license or to travel outside the country. “If you look at adoption from a business perspective, agencies get money for the upfront work of placing children,” says Kevin H. Vollmers, head of Gazillion Strong, an advocacy and social-service agency for adoptees, immigrants and other groups. “So you have all this staff on the front end and just one or two providing post-adoption services,” including citizenship.
Whoever is at fault in any individual case, it is hard to imagine a more bizarre and cruel twist for adoptees who grew up in the United States. Deportation back to their birth countries goes against the story that children are often told after they are adopted, that they are living in “forever homes” with “forever families.” Many adoptees, especially of the earlier generations left out of the 2000 law, were encouraged to assimilate, to become “American” and leave their birth country behind. As Maureen McCauley Evans, a former executive director of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a nonprofit group that promotes adoption and other children’s issues, says: “It undermines the integrity of the adoptive family. These adoptees are genuinely family members, and then we have the government saying, ‘No, they are not.’”
He was awaiting his first deportation hearing, scheduled for this week on what happens to be his 40th birthday. “As I tell my kids, you have to pay the price for your wrongs,” he said. “I’ve done that. I’ve done my time and probation and followed the rules.”
Andrew Muñoz, a spokesman for ICE, says that although Crapser’s criminal history makes him potentially deportable, “ICE was not aware of Mr. Crapser’s childhood history” when it made the decision to pursue his case and would take it into consideration. Meanwhile, Korean adoptee groups, both in Seoul and the United States, as well as other activist organizations, including Vollmers’s, have been lobbying local lawmakers on Crapser’s behalf. They and other advocates are also pushing Congress to finally write an amendment to rectify the grandfathering lapse in the Child Citizenship Act; to both put an end to the deportations and to make all adoptees, regardless of their age, U.S. citizens.
“Lawmakers and the public need to understand that these adoptees were adopted by American citizens, were brought to this country legally, were raised in American society,” says McLane Layton, a former U.S. Senate staff member who helped draft the 2000 law and the founder of Equality for Adopted Children, an advocacy group. As Crapser’s lawyer, Lori Walls, of the Washington Immigration Defense Group in Seattle, told me, “Adam’s ultimately responsible for his actions, but at what point do we stop punishing him?”
As for Crapser, the narratives he heard for most of his life about what it means to be adopted in the United States have proved to be a lie. “I was told to be American,” he told me. “And I tried to fit in. I learned every piece of slang. I studied everything I could about American history. I was told to stop crying about my mom, my sister, Korea. I was told to be happy because I was an American.”