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Adam Crapser was a toddler in an orphanage the last time he lived in South Korea.
American parents adopted him decades ago and flew him to the United States. Now the 41-year-old could be days away from deportation.
An immigration judge in Washington ruled against his request for relief last week, ordering his removal from the US.
To advocates, it’s one more troubling sign of a broken system. The case, they say, exposes a flawed US law that unfairly leaves tens of thousands of international adoptees in limbo without citizenship.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the proceedings against Crapser show the agency is following its priorities by cracking down on criminals.
‘America failed Adam’
Crapser has been fighting deportation since 2013, when he applied to get a copy of his green card and ended up on the radar of immigration authorities. His past run-ins with the law, including burglary and assault charges, caught their eye.
“ICE targeted Mr. Crapser for enforcement based on the severity of his criminal history, which includes multiple prior convictions for serious and violent offenses including assault, being a felon in possession of a weapon, and 3rd degree domestic violence,” agency spokeswoman Rose Richeson said in a statement this week.
Crapser’s attorney and supporters stress that his criminal record doesn’t tell the whole story.
Crapser was physically abused and relinquished by the parents who initially adopted him and brought him here, they say. Then he was adopted again and endured more abuse.
“America failed Adam multiple times. … It’s insane now to deport him. We should help him,” says Becky Belcore, a board member of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium.
US government officials facilitated his adoption, she says, but never stepped in to help him as system after system failed.
Attorney Lori Walls says Crapser was eligible for a second chance, and deserves one. He’s admitted he’s accountable for his actions, served out sentences for the crimes he committed and has sought psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress, she says.
“If you don’t take into account the fact that he was adopted and abandoned and abused and homeless, then maybe this (deporting someone for crimes he committed) would make sense to you. But it doesn’t make sense if you back out just a little and look at the context,” she says.
Crapser had pleaded with officials to give him a fresh start.
“All I want to do is be the best American I can be,” he said last year, according to CNN affiliate KPTV. “I don’t want to be this broken, screwed-up guy, so just don’t kick me out of the United States. That’s all I’m asking, please.”
Adoptee: Judge’s decision ‘scares me’
In court last week, a group of adoptees who’ve rallied around Crapser’s case listened as the judge decided against giving Crapser a reprieve.
“We were shocked, because we just can’t believe that people who were adopted by US citizens as children can be deported back to a country we don’t even know,” Belcore said. “Just the cruelty of that was shocking.”
Crapser, Belcore argues, should have been a US citizen all along.
A law passed by Congress in 2000 made international adoptees citizens automatically. But it didn’t apply to anyone who was 18 or over when the law went into effect.
So Crapser never became a US citizen, because neither his parents nor state officials completed the paperwork.
Belcore estimates there are about 35,000 others who were left in a similar limbo. And she’s part of a group pushing for Congress to change that with a new law that would provide retroactive US citizenship to all internationally adopted individuals, no matter when they were adopted.
“We all should be citizens,” she says. “It’s illogical that we’re not.”
Justin Ki Hong wasn’t in court with Crapser last week. But he says word of the judge’s decision has rattled him. Like Crapser, he says, he was adopted as a child from South Korea but isn’t a US citizen.
“If he was a citizen, he would serve his time, he’d be on probation and then be fine. But now on top of that, they’re saying that, ‘We’re going to punish you a second time and send you to a foreign country,'” Ki Hong says. “That scares me. … I could be in that situation.”
As news media around the country cover Crapser’s case, Walls says a wave of adoptees and their parents have contacted her.
“They’re terrified,” she says.
Preparing for a new life
Speaking to reporters after an immigration hearing last year, Crapser said he didn’t think he’d survive if he got sent to South Korea.
“You’re sentencing me to death for crimes I’ve already done hard time for,” Crapser said at the time, according to KPTV. “Listen to my voice. I’m an American. I’ve been here my whole life. I don’t know anything else.”
But at last week’s hearing, he decided to waive his right to an appeal after spending more than eight months in immigration detention.
“He just feels like he can’t stay there one day longer than he has to, the conditions are so dehumanizing,” Belcore says.
Crapser couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. Friends say he’s trying to focus on moving forward and building a new life in Korea.
He hopes someday the US law will change and give him a chance to return. He hopes his wife and children will be able to follow him to South Korea eventually. And he hopes to reconnect with his biological mother, who Korean broadcaster MBC tracked down after airing a documentary about his case last year.
In detention, another immigrant has helped him learn letters of the Korean alphabet. But he still doesn’t speak the language or know how he’ll find work.
According to his attorney, there’s only one word Crapser still remembers how to say in Korean: airplane.