not Born in the U.S.A.

The U.S. is kicking out this Korean adoptee after 37 years—and thousands like him

Adam Crapser (left) and KPTV screenshot (right)

Adam Crapser, a South Korean man adopted by Americans at age 3, looks straight into the camera. He isn’t smiling, and his voice shakes as he speaks.

“All I want to do is be the best American I can be. I don’t want to be this broken, screwed-up guy,” the 41-year-old pleads. “So don’t kick me out of the United States is all I’m asking, please.”

The video was taken long before Wednesday, when an immigration judge in Washington state ordered Crapser deported back to a country he hasn’t seen since he was 3. An American family adopted Crapser from South Korea 37 years ago, but never finalized his naturalization.

“I won’t make it if you send me,” Crapser says in the video, shot by a local Fox affiliate in April 2015. “Listen to my voice. I’m an American. I’ve been here my whole life. I don’t know anything else.”

“Listen to my voice. I’m an American. I’ve been here my whole life. I don’t know anything else.”

- Adam Crapsen

Crapser’s case is the latest example of what Emily Kessel of the Adoptee Rights Campaign says is the reality for 35,000 people who were brought to the U.S. as young adoptees, but don’t have full legal status. When Crapser applied to renew his green card in 2014, federal officials became aware of his criminal convictions from years ago, including burglary and assault.

Since Crapser’s two sets of adoptive parents—one pair who abandoned him and another who abused him, he told the Associated Press—never finished his naturalization process, he was eligible for deportation. So despite his loved ones’ pleas for lenience, a judge ruled on Wednesday that Crapser should be deported. At that point, he had already been sitting in a deportation center in Tacoma, WA, for eight months, and ultimately waived his right to an appeal.

The system has really burned him out, which is kind of what the system is intended to do,” Kessel, who was present at the hearing, told me. “The whole system—all the way from the time he was adopted—has kind of failed him, leading up to the time when he was entered into the immigration system, which he shouldn’t have been entered into in the first place.”

Crapser is leaving behind a wife and four young children, who will have to figure out how to survive without him. “His deportation is going to deeply affect them,” Kessel said.

“He made a very heartbreaking and hard decision to go back to the country.”

- Dae Yoon, executive director, National Korean American Service and Education Consortium

“He’s very drained and he’s very disappointed, so he doesn’t want to stay one more day in a detention center,” Dae Yoon, executive director of advocacy group the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, told me. “He made a very heartbreaking and hard decision to go back to the country.”

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which passed under President Bill Clinton, aimed to solve situations like Crapser’s by automatically granting adopted children citizenship rights. But a loophole in the law only made citizenship available to people who were 18 or under as of February 2001, leaving older adoptees like Crapser in legal limbo.

Advocates have tried to pass legislation in recent years to retroactively apply the law, and grant citizenship to such adoptees, who’ve never really known their birth countries. Two versions of a bill that would do this, called the Adoptee Citizenship Act, have been stuck in the House of Representatives‘ and the Senate’s judiciary committees since last year.

“While I am disappointed in the judge’s ruling and worried about my family’s future, I hope that what has happened to me will further demonstrate the importance of passing the Adoptee Citizenship Act,” Crapser said in a statement.

Now, the South Korean government is trying to compile travel documents for Crapser (he has no Korean documents) that will enable him to be deported. The South Korean consulate in Seattle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Becky Belcore, an advocate and friend of Crapser’s, was also adopted from South Korea by American parents at a young age—except they went through the steps to get her full citizenship. Belcore, 44, met Crapser when she heard about his case in the news last year. She was present for Crapser’s hearing, and said he’s “extremely disappointed” by the entire ordeal. Belcore vowed to keep meeting with Congress members to urge them to pass one of the bills that would’ve prevented Crapser’s deportation.

“It just seems so outrageous that someone who was adopted can be deported,” she told me. “Just like we had no control over our adoption, all of us in the Korean adoptee community had no control over which families we were placed with. And so, it could have been any of us.”