Bill aims to protect Korean-American adoptees from deportation

Elizabeth Shim
Korean-American adoptees are drawing attention to a petition and calling on Congress to support a law to prevent deportations of legal adoptees. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Korean-American adoptees are drawing attention to a petition and calling on Congress to support a law to prevent deportations of legal adoptees. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, May 29 (UPI) -- Tens of thousands of international adoptees in the United States, many of them of Korean descent, are under threat of potential deportation because of neglected paperwork.

Adoptees legally adopted by U.S. citizens need better protection, and a new law could lift them out of immigration limbo, said Jenny Town, a leading analyst in Washington on North Korea affairs, and managing editor of 38 North.


The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 would allow certain adoptees, whose applications for U.S. citizenship were never filed with the government before 2000, to acquire automatic citizenship, she said.

Town, herself a Korean-American adoptee, has been circulating the petition, calling on Congress to support the new law. But the request is being made at a time when the Trump administration continues to pursue a wall at the Mexico border, and the president's supporters want to curtail immigration.

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The act, if passed, would also allow deported adoptees to return to the United States.

Minor violations

Town is concerned the current mood in Washington could hurt their chances.

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"On the policy side of immigration, people view this as criminals coming back, or trying to come back, regardless of the type of crime," Town said.


The petition is being circulated online following the high-profile deportation of Adam Crapser, a South Korea-born adoptee brought to the United States at age 3 but deported in 2016 over criminal convictions, including unlawful possession of a firearm and assault.

Town said Crapser is one of many cases of deportations. Other adoptees were forcibly removed because of minor violations, even unpaid parking tickets, she said.

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Glenn Morey, a South Korea-born adoptee and filmmaker from Denver, said as many as 30,000 adoptees could be experiencing problems because of their legal status.

Morey, who has directed and produced a short documentary, Side By Side, featuring interviews with Korean adoptees around the world, said adoptees without citizenship who unknowingly voted in U.S. elections could potentially be convicted.

"That's a felony," Morey said. "If you're not a citizen of the U.S., you would be deported under current law."

Awakening to racialization

Morey, born in 1960 in Seoul, represents one of the earliest generations of Korean adoptees to the United States.

Growing up in Littleton, Colo., Morey grappled with contradictions. He experienced racism in his predominantly white community, but at the same time, as a member of a white adoptive family, he could go through life as a member of the dominant group in society.


"Being in a white family, it was very easy for [us adoptees] to go through life, in a sense, believing we were white," Morey said, referring to a "commonality" among adoptees he has met and interviewed.

"A friend of mine calls this 'white brain,' because even though we know intellectually that we're Korean, it is a very simple matter to forget about that."

Angry national debates centering on immigration, and polarized conversations on race, have changed Korean-American adoptees' view of themselves, however.

As adults, adoptees have "awakened to their racialization," Morey said, because of how "racism is at the core of these immigration discussions."

Arissa Oh, an associate professor of history at Boston College, and author of To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, told UPI overall international adoptions to the United States have reached a 30-year low.

For its part, rapidly industrialized South Korea has also been trying to end international adoptions because of outside criticism of the country as an "exporter" of babies, with nearly 200,000 Korean children received in the United States across six decades.

The practice even drew attention from North Korea. As early as the '70s, Pyongyang was claiming the South was sending children overseas to become organ donors or slaves, Oh said.


After U.S. journalists ridiculed South Korea's adoption practices during the 1988 Summer Olympics, Seoul made it difficult for any foreigner to adopt children, while making some exceptions for Korean Americans or adult adoptees.

Oh said the current U.S. climate on immigration provides contrast to the historical roots of transracial Korean adoptions. Children were adopted from Korea during a period in postwar America where domestic racism was seen as a liability on the international stage.

"Some of the people adopting from Korea, whether they were religious or not, were interested in ways they could participate in national anti-racism," Oh said.

Oh also said transracial adoptions are re-emerging as a prominent issue, this time at the U.S.-Mexico border because of recent reports some of the separated migrant children could be being adopted into American families without consent.

Town, who was adopted when she was 3 years old, said the South Korean experience with inter-country adoptions offers a cautionary tale.

While many children needed homes, others were "recruited from poor families" in past decades.

"The system wasn't regulated," Town said. "That's where the problem stems from."

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