On a warm summer afternoon, the central Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon was buzzing with the chaotic energy of an international city. Neon storefront lights flashed across the sidewalks, mixing with the Korean pop music that wafted from the local shops. Yellow taxis whizzed past the herds of tourists on the streets. And deep inside the bowels of an underground restaurant, a tattooed, unusually muscular Korean man, who goes by the name D, was rushing to prep dinner service.
He hollered in English to his line cook, “Look, it’s nothing but cilantro. It’s not even like pico de gallo. It’s like cilantro de gallo.” Then he rushed over to stir maize for Mexican tamales, a recipe he learned from his abuelita, or Mexican grandmother.
Fusion cuisine may be trendy these days, but D’s path to cooking Mexican food in Korea wasn’t the result of culinary passion. He was born in Korea and orphaned at a young age. In 1979, when D was 5 years old, an American woman named Cheryl Markson, who ran the now-defunct Friends of Children of Various Nations adoption agency, found him. (FCVN closed in 2007 after the state of Colorado investigated the agency for fraud.) Markson brought him to the United States to be placed for adoption with a family living in the Portland, Oregon, area.
But that Portland family handed him back to Markson, and by the time he was a teenager, Markson had moved D to several different homes—family, foster, and group. His only fond memory from childhood was the time he lived at a foster home in East Los Angeles, where he spent hours in the kitchen beside the woman he still describes as his abuelita, learning her recipes. As the family matriarch, D’s grandmother was the closest he’d ever had to a family member.
“My grandmother protected me and gave me a home,” he told me when we met in the tiny, one-room apartment he shares with his Korean wife and creamsicle-colored cat.
But their cherished time together wasn’t enough to carry D through adulthood. At 17 years old, he began to run with gangs and organize drug deals, he said. He looked up to the gang elders—his “Mexican uncles,” as he still calls them—as father figures. D wasn’t surprised to find himself on the wrong side of the law more than a couple of times. But he was shocked to find that his crimes made him deportable—to Korea, a country he had no ties to—because he was not a United States citizen. He had always assumed he was.
Before 2001, the United States did not grant automatic citizenship to foreign-born adoptees. It was up to new American parents to naturalize their adopted children. If the parents didn’t, for reasons ranging from negligence to honest ignorance, the children suffered the consequences. D is one of an estimated 15,000 Korean-born adoptees who grew up and lived in the United States without citizenship—leaving them vulnerable to deportation at any time. While Korean adoptees represent a majority of those who have been snared by this loophole in the law, foreign-born adoptees from countries such as Vietnam, Mexico, and India have also grown up in the United States only to discover, as adults, that they are not actually American.
In 2002, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dropped D at the same Korean airport from which he left for the United States when he was 5. He was alone. He didn’t know the language. He had no family or friends.
Because of his long separation from the peninsula—he had no connection to the country—D experienced one of the darkest periods of his life. For almost a decade, he roamed around South Korea, homeless, he said. He sought solace in soju, Korean high-proof liquor. Acclimating to the culture, language, and even the food proved extremely difficult.
“My first year in Korea was really horrible,” he said. “I was pretty thugged out. I looked very gangster—big and muscular and tattoos.”
His tattoos, lack of language skills, and brusque manner didn’t fit well with Korea’s reserved culture. But slowly he began to steady himself, got married to a Korean woman, and found himself back in the kitchen doing what he loved most—cooking—though not in a country he calls home.
Still, it has been a high price to pay for an immigration loophole that left him a foreigner in his own country—and has left thousands of other foreign-born adoptees with precarious US citizenship status.
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The short but bloody Korean War devastated the Korean peninsula. Between 1950 and 1953, as many as 5 million people lost their lives (there is still some uncertainty about the number of people who were killed), more than half of them Korean civilians, creating a half-million widows and leaving tens of thousands orphans. As the country cracked in two, more than 10 million families were separated.
Shortly after the conflict, Harry Holt, an American Christian missionary, and his wife, Bertha, felt compelled by God to save the “poor” orphans. This meant placing the abandoned children in American homes by the planeloads—without any regulatory framework in place. By the late 1950s, the Holts had become pioneers of international adoption and established an archetype, Holt International, for adoption agencies.
During the same period, the southern part of the peninsula, which was in the throes of rapid industrialization, was overwhelmed by poverty. Korean parents, already struggling to support their families, often put additional children in orphanages. Holt, as well as several other American-owned adoption agencies, had conveniently set up orphanages, as well as birthing centers, all over the country to expedite the Western demand for Korean children, according to Eleana Kim, author of Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Adoption agencies also falsified paperwork to make children look parentless, then rushed placements. By the mid-2000s, 150,000 Korean children had left the tiny country while their birth parents stayed behind.
During the early decades of the international adoption boom, an overseas adoption from Korea to the United States could take as little as three months to process, adult adoptees told me. With little time between leaving the country and being placed in an American home, there were many opportunities for error and corruption by all parties involved. Some children were “rehomed”—shunted off to other families, often without input or oversight from adoption or child welfare agencies, lawyers, or courts—if the parents didn’t think the child fit in with their family or in cases of sexual and physical abuse. Adoption agencies like Holt were required to check on the welfare of the child only twice within the first six months in the new home.
This meant adopted children like D fell through the cracks. Based on numbers provided by the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, between 10 and 14 percent of adoptive parents failed to legally adopt or naturalize their children as US citizens. These children grew up in typical American fashion—eating mac and cheese, watching MTV, and going to high school proms, oblivious to their illegal status and its implications. But by the time they became adults, they were living in constant fear of being deported from the only country they knew.
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Thus far, D is one of only a handful of Korean adoptees who have been forced to return to their native country. A Korean adoption agency placed the number forced to return at 15, while the Korean government gave the figure as 10. (The Korean government refers to them as “deportees,” as do adoption agencies and adoptee activists.) But an estimated 15,000 adult adoptees from Korea living in the United States can’t vote, work on the books, or journey freely to their native country like so many other, legal adoptees do.
Last August, I traveled to a sleepy suburb of Portland, Oregon, to meet Justin Ki Hong, a 33-year-old tall Korean male with a jittery disposition. Like all of his fellow Korean adoptees, Hong was born on the peninsula during the height of the adoption boom. He came to the United States in 1985, but his adoptive parents failed to naturalize him. And the adoption agency failed to protect him: His adoptive father sexually abused him for over 14 years.
“We are essentially goods,” Hong said, finishing a drag of his cigarette. “They [adoption agencies] got paid their money and put us with families and dropped us in these places.”
Hong’s father was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to 16 years in state prison (he was released this April). But Hong’s nightmare wasn’t over. In 2000, his mother, distraught over the conviction, found it unbearable to continue taking care of Hong and decided to turn him over to foster care. Hong was 17 at the time, and remained in the system until he became a legal adult six months later.
Becoming an adult only made life harder, however. While Hong thought he was becoming legally independent, he discovered he wasn’t even legally a citizen.
It was the summer of his junior year in college when he tried to apply for a job; he was told that he needed to show proof of citizenship. He called his adoptive mother, and she revealed that he was never naturalized. The only legal documentation he had was his birth certificate and the adoption visa that expired in 1986.
Hong’s childhood trauma has reverberated into his adulthood; he suffers from bouts of crippling anxiety and depression. Although Hong doesn’t have a criminal record and is recognized as a permanent resident in the States, there are several restrictions that inhibit his daily life. Because he is not a US citizen, he can’t get a passport, and therefore can’t visit Korea, something that he has yearned to do for years. “I feel if I could be a citizen then I could call myself American,” he said.
While adoptees like Hong cannot go back to South Korea, many others cannot hold a steady job and have to seek alternative employment to survive.
“You grow up in a white family in a white town,” said Jenna Johnson, a soft-spoken 42-year-old Korean adoptee. (The name Jenna Johnson is a pseudonym chosen to protect her real identity.) “As far as I was concerned, I was American.”
In 1976, Johnson was adopted by a firefighter father and a secretary mother who lived in the middle of Minnesota. It seemed like an idyllic all-American family. But she wasn’t American.
At the age of 18, after a tumultuous relationship with her parents, whom she described as emotionally abusive and controlling, Johnson ran off to the big city: Minneapolis. That’s when she found out she was not a US citizen. “I figured it was all automatic and things would just take care of themselves,” Johnson’s adoptive father, Gary Larson, told me over the phone. He and his wife couldn’t recount a social worker from the adoption agency visiting during the first six months of her adoption. So the correct paperwork was never filed. Johnson was an undocumented immigrant.
In 1996, when Johnson was 22, she decided on a whim to move with a friend to the West Coast. She hoped for a fresh start and a new life. But her troubles soon followed her there.
After failing to find legitimate employment in California because of her precarious status as well as a long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, Johnson flipped through the San Francisco Yellow Pages and found the number of an escort company. She landed her first gig the next night after she inquired about a job. Without the proper attire, she had to rush out to buy high heels and practiced wearing them before her shift started.
While it took her eight years to leave the industry, the trials of the job—repeated sexual assault and perpetual fear of johns—have haunted her ever since. Now, Johnson spends her days house sitting and pet sitting, both for money and for shelter. If those gigs fall through, she can be found camping in local East Bay parks. She assured me that she has a sleeping bag and a yoga mat for warmth and comfort.
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In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Child Citizenship Act, a law granting automatic citizenship to foreign-born adoptees. But the law applied only to children who were 18 and younger that year. Adult adoptees like D, Hong, and Johnson, were all left in citizenship limbo.
Attempts to close the loophole haven’t been successful. Last summer I sat down with Im Eun Bin, deputy director of the Special Committee for Adoption for the Korean government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, in the country’s government hub, Sejong City. Bin spoke on behalf of the Korean government’s post-adoption services and said that nobody is free from fault: the Korean government, the U.S. government, the adoption agencies, and the parents all played a role. Bin wants all of the parties to work together to find a solution. But so far that hasn’t happened.
“We met with the US embassy in Korea,” Bin said, “and asked if they could pass [our concerns] to the State Department and do an investigation.” But Bin and her department never received a response. When I contacted the US Embassy in Seoul to verify, I too never received a reply.
Last November, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) introduced a standalone bill, the Adoptee Citizenship Act, which would grant retroactive citizenship to all international adoptees no matter their age. And if an adoptee had been deported for committing a crime, like D, he or she could come back to the States to serve their sentence here. “This constant threat to the life they know is unjust,” Klobuchar said in a statement to The Nation, “and I am working to move my bipartisan bill forward to ensure international adoptees are recognized as the Americans they truly are.”
More recently, on June 10, House Representatives Adam Smith (D-Washington) and Trent Franks (R-Arizona) introduced the Adoption Citizenship Act of 2016 in the House. The bill is a companion to Klobuchar’s Senate version and also seeks to provide all foreign-born adoptees with US citizenship.
But if recent history is any guide, Klobuchar and Smith’s bills won’t get far. In 2013, the Citizenship for Lawful Adoptees amendment was introduced by then-Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) and moved through the Senate as part of a larger immigration bill. Advocates were hopeful. But conservatives’ antagonism to immigration reform stalled the bill in the House, along with the adoptee amendment.
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Back in Seoul, at the underground restaurant, D was still prepping ingredients before the night kicked off. An older Korean man, a plumber, came in to work on some leaky pipes. He walked up to D to ask him a question in Korean.
“Huh?” D replied in English. Then he started to make guacamole. Almost 15 years after he arrived in South Korea, D is still longing for the United States. For now, he and the other deportees are stuck in a country that’s still foreign to them.
A few months back, D and I chatted online about Klobuchar’s proposed legislation. He asked if I thought the bill would pass. I replied that I had no idea but I was hopeful. Then he messaged me again to tell me that no one cares. The bill wasn’t going to pass. He said he remembered several other failed attempts, like the 2013 amendment, a decade after he was sent back to Korea.
“That ship has sailed,” he typed back.
Alyssa Jeong Perry was awarded a fellowship through the International Center for Journalists, which funded her trip to South Korea.