Phillip Clay was a boy of 8 when he left the Eunpyeong Orphanage in South Korea, beginning a new life as the adopted son of a Philadelphia couple in 1983.
As he grew into adulthood he lacked direction, becoming trapped in a cycle of illegal drugs, jails, and mental-health centers.
He lacked something else too: U.S. citizenship, an oversight from an era when many parents didn’t realize that adoption and immigration were two separate processes.
Deemed legally undocumented and marked by a lengthy criminal record, Clay was deported to Korea in 2012. During the next five years he struggled to speak the language and to make connections in the robust community of Korean adoptees who have returned to their homeland in search of identity and birth-parents.
Two weeks ago, late on the night of May 21, Clay, 42, took an elevator to the 14th floor of an apartment building in the city of Ilsan. And from there he jumped.
“His death could have been prevented,” said Monte Haines, another deported adoptee, who knew Clay in Seoul.
The reasons behind any suicide are complex. But Clay’s violent, public death has angered and upset adoptees and their allies in both countries. Many fault the American immigration and adoption system, which can fail to ensure that children adopted by American parents gain full U.S. citizenship.
There’s a chance, they say, that if Clay had been a citizen he would still be alive. Perhaps still troubled, perhaps in jail or a treatment facility. But alive — and with a hope to change his life.
“We should be ashamed as Americans,” said Anne Montgomery, a Philadelphia advocate for the Adoptee Rights Campaign. “A system that’s supposed to support him failed in every way. We failed him as a community. We failed him as a state. We failed him as a country.”
Clay’s death has provoked ongoing news coverage in Korea, where funeral services were held. Vigils took place in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Everyone is torn up about this,” said Liz Wade, a leader in the Philadelphia community of adult Korean adoptees.
Today, in this country, scores of people who were adopted from overseas as babies or toddlers have been shocked to discover they are not U.S. citizens. Some face deportation as President Trump cracks down on undocumented immigrants. A criminal record can speed them to the front of the line.
The Adoptee Rights Campaign, known as ARC, estimates that 30,000 adoptees lack citizenship, and many of them are unaware of that fact. The group is pushing Congress to enact a law that would grant citizenship to all adoptees, regardless of when they came here.
Last week ARC launched a national petition campaign entitled, “America, honor your promise.”
For a decade, Clay was a troubled presence in Philadelphia courtrooms: In and out of jail, addicted to crack cocaine, tormented by depression and anxiety, sometimes homeless, public records show. He had left high school in 11th grade, but later got an equivalency degree. He worked at a restaurant and for a dry cleaner until addiction took hold.
Between 2001 and 2011, Clay was arrested at least two dozen times, convicted in at least 18 cases and sentenced to jail in nine, records state. At least twice the courts ordered him into mental-health-and-drug-treatment centers.
He shoplifted from Rite Aid and Wawa, broke into a house, stole so many bicycles that some police officers came to recognize him on sight. Only once, city records indicate, was he convicted of a violent crime — assault, after kicking a police officer in the knee in 2001.
In 2010 he had 13 active parole or probation cases before a single judge. That year he was hospitalized for a week at Mercy Hospital because of depression.
Multiple efforts to contact Clay’s adoptive parents were unsuccessful.
“I knew Phillip,” said Haines, 46, who was adopted to Iowa in the late 1970s and, with no citizenship and a police record, deported to Korea in 2009. “He was a quiet person.”
Clay never showed obvious signs of depression, never mentioned he was thinking of suicide, Haines said.
Adoptees deported to Korea face crushing language and cultural barriers that limit access to food, shelter, jobs, and services. Trying to find work and health-care can be hard in the United States. In a Korea where they can’t read the street signs or a job application, it can seem hopeless.
“It’s an overwhelming situation,” said Joy Alessi, a Korean adoptee and Gulf Coast director of ARC. “The isolation my fellow adoptees go through is palpable.”
Years ago, when international adoption was relatively new, many parents mistakenly believed that adoption and immigration were the same. Until the Child Citizenship Act took effect in 2001, they were two separate procedures.
Some parents didn’t know. Others didn’t care. Some got bad advice from lawyers. Adoption agencies didn’t follow up. And the federal government — which made certain that adopted children entered the country legally — never checked to ensure that those kids became citizens.
Adoptees from Korea and elsewhere have discovered their true legal status when applying for passports, driver’s licenses or government benefits. Some are permanent residents who can openly work for citizenship, but others are undocumented and live hidden and afraid.
There’s no sign that Clay ever tried to hide.
The federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that Clay, who sometimes used the name Phillip Kim, was deported to Korea in 2012.
He had “entered the country lawfully before accumulating a lengthy criminal history dating back nearly two decades — the most serious of which included criminal convictions for robbery and multiple theft and drug-related offenses,” the agency said.
Adoptee Solidarity Korea leaders see it differently: whether someone was deported for serious or petty crimes, “the same truths remain: the inter-country adoption system, the U.S. immigration system, and the adopters, have failed to protect the people they promised to care for.”
Clay’s situation has been compared to that of Adam Crapser, whose controversial deportation from Washington state generated national publicity last year. Adopted from Korea at age 3, he grew up believing he was a citizen. When he discovered he was not, and applied for legal residency, the government saw his convictions for assault, burglary, and weapons possession.
Supporters argued that Crapser had turned his life around after an abusive upbringing in two adoptive homes where no one sought citizenship for him.
After Clay’s death, Crapser told the Korea Times, “It could be me tomorrow.”
Clay didn’t know it at the time, but in March 2011 his life in the United States was arcing toward an end.
That month he was arrested for possession of cocaine and sentenced to six to 12 months in prison — with immediate release to a treatment facility once a bed became available.
At the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, he told a social worker about his trouble:
He’d been using crack cocaine for five years, spending up to $100 a day on the drug. He smoked marijuana daily for 14 years. And, although he quit some years back, he had spent a decade snorting cocaine.
His first psychiatric assessment took place when he was 20, the social worker wrote, because of “self-isolating behavior that worried his adoptive parents.”
Clay was “uncertain why he abuses drugs,” the report stated, “but remains receptive to treatment recommendations due to his fear of dying.”
For adoptees and others: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline(800) 273-8255