Adopted from South Korea into the United States at age 3, Adam Crapser of Vancouver is now facing possible deportation to a country he can’t remember.
Because he was forced to protect himself in one abusive situation after another, he says, and survive against all odds as he grew up — and because that led him to commit crimes along the way, he admits — Crapser is a convicted felon. Because both families that legally adopted him failed to pursue citizenship for him, Crapser never became a naturalized citizen.
Now, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is looking to return Crapser to South Korea — a place he has no connection with beyond his birth name, Song Hyuk Shin, and a few childhood photographs. He has no family in South Korea. He doesn’t speak the language.
“I’ve lived my whole life in America. It’s all I’ve ever known,” he said during an interview in the east Vancouver apartment he shares with his new wife, Anh, and their two children. A third child is due in May. Anh is studying electrical engineering, and the couple would like to move to Hillsboro, they said.
But on Thursday, Crapser’s 40th birthday, he will go before an immigration judge in Portland for an initial hearing on removal from the country.
Adoption and immigration advocates are pressing for leniency and searching for congressional sponsors of an amendment to the 2000 Child Citizenship Act that would pull people like Crapser — adopted and raised by American citizens but never naturalized as American citizens — out of the crack they’ve fallen into.
“International adoptees like me have been talking about this for years,” said Kevin Vollmers, editor of the adoptee magazine and website A Gazillion Voices, based in Minneapolis. “We can’t believe this is still happening.”
“It’s a crazy system that we’ve been working to fix for years — ever since we learned you have this group of international adoptees whose parents never completed the immigration process,” said Chuck Johnson, executive director of the National Council on Adoption. “Adam is entitled to his citizenship.”
On Jan. 31, Crapser was shocked to learn from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that “removal proceedings” had begun against him — because he’s an alien with a criminal record — and that he must appear before an immigration judge in Portland.
“Many adoptees have found that although they were legally adopted and have been legal permanent residents for most of their lives, they are not U.S. citizens,” says a State Department website on Intercountry Adoption. “Some discovered this as young adults when applying for their first jobs, registering to vote, applying for a U.S. passport — or unfortunately, when getting into trouble with the law and facing removal to a country they may no longer call home.”
Fifteen years ago, a new federal law aimed to close this loophole — mostly. The Child Citizen Act of 2000 bestowed citizenship on foreign-born children who were legally adopted into the U.S. and who were not yet 18 on Feb. 27, 2001, when the law took effect. Those children automatically became U.S. citizens then.
The law didn’t cover Adam Crapser. Born in 1975, he was nearing age 26 on that day.
How many like him are there? The government doesn’t track those numbers, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement public affairs officer Andrew Muñoz. Vollmers and Johnson both estimated “thousands.”
They’re calling for prosecutorial discretion in such cases. And they’re supporting an amendment to the 2000 Child Citizen Act that would eliminate the need for parents legally adopting foreign-born children to go through the additional step of naturalizing them — a bureaucratic step that Vollmers calls “rigmarole.”
Ironically, Crapser said he never crossed paths with any Korean natives in America until this story started getting out; lately there’s been outcry on his behalf via social media, and advocates like Vollmers’ A Gazillion Voices Magazine and 18 Million Rising, an advocacy group for Asian Americans.
“Adam’s children need him. His wife needs him. This country is his home, and he should not be deported because his abusive adoptive parents failed to complete his naturalization paperwork,” declares the 18 Million Rising website.
Crapser knows little about his early childhood in South Korea, other than that he was 3 years old and his sister 4 when they were deposited at an orphanage near Seoul in October 1978.
In March 1979, the siblings were adopted into the United States by a Michigan family who moved to Oregon. It was a violent situation, Crapser said, and both siblings were relinquished to the state. They were separated after that. (Crapser finally located his sister again, in Northeast Portland, in 2012.)
Eventually Crapser was placed in the home of Thomas and Dolly-Jean Crapser, who lived in Keizer, Ore., with several foster and adopted children as well as their own biological son. Everything looked great when he went there in 1987 at age 12.
But he was immediately introduced to a paddle named “Big Red” and given “the most vicious whupping of my life,” he said. That was the pattern for years, he said.
The state launched an investigation in June 1991. The Crapsers were arrested in September 1991 and initially charged with 34 counts of rape, sexual abuse and criminal mistreatment across six years. The case went to trial in Marion County Circuit Court in June 1992. Testimony reported in The Salem Statesman Journal was that eight children had been kicked, punched, gagged, bitten, burned, slammed into walls and beaten with garden tools and belts.
Convicted on 12 counts, Thomas Crapser was sentenced to 90 days in jail, a fine and probation; Dolly-Jean Crapser’s 90-day sentence was suspended, and she was ordered to perform community service. An investigation report had recommended years in prison for both. The state unsuccessfully appealed the sentences.
Thomas Crapser did not respond to a Columbian request for comment.
Adam Crapser said middle school bullying was so bad that he wound up lashing back and serving time in juvenile jail. By his late teens, he was living in a car and fending for himself.
Over the next couple of decades, he tried to live a good life, he said, but he racked up several more criminal convictions — starting with burglary for breaking back into the Crapser home to retrieve childhood keepsakes like his Korean Bible. For that, he spent 25 months in prison. Back outside and fearing for his safety, Crapser said, he got hold of a gun — strictly forbidden for a convicted felon — and wound up in prison again.
He decided he had to turn himself around. He studied cosmetology and auto mechanics. He earned his G.E.D. and worked as a collision-repair estimator. “I’ve worked so many jobs for 90 days at a time,” he said, because every employer faced a deadline to require proof of legal status. Crapser’s permanent legal status — his Green Card — had long since expired. He couldn’t get a new one without documents that he said the Crapsers withheld.
Finally, in 2012, he had what he needed to apply for a new Green Card. But his application appears to have triggered the investigation by Homeland Security.
“I know that my criminal record makes me look a certain way on paper,” he said. “I know that I’m still responsible for my actions, and I will deal with that and take whatever is coming to me. At the same time, I don’t think I should be punished twice for things I’ve already paid for.”
“I realize that life isn’t about ‘fair,’ ” he said, but when you compare Thomas’ and Dolly-Jean’s sentences to his own, he said, “it doesn’t make sense.”
Adam Crapser has been “failed,” said his attorney, Lori Walls of Seattle. “Without minimizing his criminal history, it is undeniable that the guy has been failed by several systems and agencies and families. There’s something really troubling about the U.S. government now basically saying he doesn’t even belong here.”
Adam Crapser’s American citizenship and his criminal record ought to be completely separate questions, advocates argue. But they’re not. Closing that loophole in the Child Citizenship law is popular in Congress when it comes to adoptees who haven’t broken the law, they say — but not for criminals, regardless of how long they’ve been here.
“We could probably fix this tomorrow for adult adoptees who haven’t committed any crimes. We’ve run into problems because no one wants to allow criminals to stay in the country,” said McLayne Layton, the founder of Equality for Adopted Children and a former Senate staffer who worked on the 2000 law and supports amending it now.
Building political support for a law that looks like it’s going easy on criminals is “a really tough battle, with the whole recent immigration debate coloring the whole thing,” she said.
“Adam’s story is unique in many ways, but what people need to ask is, who’s really at fault here?” Vollmers said. “What these parents did is egregious on so many levels.
“He’s a victim. He’s a survivor. He has served his time. He shouldn’t be deported,” Vollmers said.