The recently-released film Blue Bayou depicts the story of Antonio LeBlanc, a Louisiana tattoo artist who’s lived in the area since he was a young child. When he gets into a dispute with his stepdaughter’s biological father, he’s dragged to the local ICE office. Adopted from South Korea at the age of 3, Antonio should rightfully be a naturalized American citizen. But his adoptive family failed to fill out the immigration paperwork correctly, leaving Antonio an undocumented immigrant, now threatened with deportation to a country he never knew (Roger Ebert).
It may seem an implausible plotline. But the film closes with a list of names of American adoptees who, like Antonio, were deported to their home countries after finding they weren’t U.S. citizens. Blue Bayou highlights a real issue with tragic consequences, one that invites us to reconsider what stories we tell about citizenship and belonging. Controversy surrounding the film’s release underlines the care that must be taken when such stories are told.
Children adopted into the United States are supposed to receive American citizenship through a process called naturalization. Today, international adoptees are naturalized automatically. But those adopted before 2001 — like the fictional Antonio or the real-world me — were not. If our adoptive parents did not file the paperwork correctly, we would not be U.S. citizens. A conviction for non-violent crimes like substance possession could mean that we’re deported from the United States to countries whose languages we don’t speak and practices are now foreign to us (WEMU).
One Korean adoptee in Minnesota faced deportation after unknowingly registering to vote as a non-citizen. An adoptee in Utah was forced to go to India, a country where she knows nobody and would not secure necessary medical care for multiple sclerosis. Four years after adoptee Joao Herbert was deported to Brazil, his body was found in a slum north of São Paolo (Foreign Policy in Focus). 42-year-old Philip Clay died by suicide five years after deportation to South Korea (NextShark, N.Y. Times). There are thought to be 64,000 more adoptees in the U.S. without citizenship.
In fact, the plot of Blue Bayou closely tracks the true story of Adam Crapser, one of several deported adoptees currently living in Seoul. Now struggling with anxiety and depression, Crapser is suing adoption agency Holt Child Services for negligently sending adoptees to the United States without ensuring their future citizenship (NBC News). But Crapser wasn’t involved in the film’s production and wasn’t consulted about the fictionalization of his life. Moreover, the film makes no mention of ongoing efforts to pass legislation that would end the issue of adoptee deportation once and for all. “Using someone’s story without their permission, especially someone who has suffered greatly and remains separated from their family, is disrespectful and exploitative,” stated the organization Adoptees for Justice in a press release (Instagram).
Adoptees for Justice and others are lobbying for the passage of the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021, which would close loopholes in existing legislation and provide for the full citizenship of all 64,000 undocumented adoptees in the United States (Adoptee Citizenship Act). “The Blue Bayou marketing and public relations team should have used their resources and platform to amplify a call-to-action about supporting the Adoptee Citizenship Act,” said adoptee Stephanie Drenka from Dallas Truth, Racial Healing, & Transformation (Yahoo! News).
Even those who support pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants often believe that those without papers “aren’t saints… these people did something wrong” (CNN). As Luis discussed in a previous piece, people who immigrate without papers are taking a severe risk in response to desperate conditions — conditions often created by American policies in the first place (The ARD). The case of adoptee deportees is more evidence of the arbitrary violence of the U.S. immigration system. A monolingual English speaker with no memories of their home country whose only family members are American citizens may face deportation to a country they left as an infant through no fault of their own. Adoptees need to be able to “bring the richness of our lives out from under a one-sided narrative about adoption” as part of a broader movement for immigrant justice (Plan A Magazine), not serve as characters in a story that “romanticizes and exploits poverty and identity” (Vanity Fair). Undocumented adoptees don’t deserve deportation. Neither does anyone else. We all deserve the ability to choose and maintain our homes, communities, and lives, tell our own stories and demand justice and liberation for our communities.
Tens of thousands of American international adoptees lack citizenship and are at risk of deportation as undocumented immigrants.
This is one of many reasons to question the narrative that undocumented immigrants are wrongdoers.
The Adoptee Citizenship Act would close a legal loophole to ensure all adoptees are citizens. We should fight for this and immigrant justice more broadly.