In death, Phillip Clay finally returns to U.S. legally

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A cardboard box about the size of a microwave left South Korea last Thursday, red “fragile” stickers affixed to its sides.

The box traveled to Kailua, Hawaii, and stayed for a few days before being flown to Dallas. Around 1 a.m. Wednesday, the box landed in Philadelphia. And just before 8:30 a.m., a man carried it into the Hampton Inn on Bartram Avenue near the airport and placed it on a chair in the Franklin Room, a nondescript conference space just past the continental breakfast area.

He opened the box slowly and pulled out some bubble wrap, revealing a smaller white box packed in, tight. Inside that box was a white cloth bag and inside that bag a gilded ceramic urn. The man placed it inside a crown of blue and white flowers on a glass table.

Phillip Clay was home.

“In death, Phillip Clay did what he couldn’t do in life,” said the man, John Compton. “He entered the U.S. legally.”

Clay was just 8 when a Philadelphia couple adopted him in 1983 from Eunpyeong Orphanage in South Korea. As an adult, he struggled with mental illness. He had repeated run-ins with the law and was a notorious bicycle thief. In 2012, he was deported back to South Korea because of his criminal record. He knew no one there and decades earlier had lost the language.

Clay hung on for five years.

“It was really, really hard for him to find a sustainable life for him over there,” said Compton, an adviser with the Global Overseas Adoptees Link.

On May 21, Clay jumped from the 14th floor of an apartment building in Ilsan.  A memorial service was held there for the 42-year-old shortly afterward.

A little more than a dozen people came to Clay’s memorial at the airport hotel Wednesday morning. Most were fellow adoptees and adoption-reform advocates. City Councilman David Oh gave some remarks. Almost none of the mourners, besides Compton, had met Clay. But they knew his situation all too well.  Many recited poems and lyrics from songs.

When Clay came to the United States, adoption and immigration were separate processes, something of which many parents and their children were unaware. Before 2000, citizenship was not granted automatically for adoptees.

“I was born in 1957 and I came here when I was 8,” said Stefanie Blandon, who dabbed a tissue on her tears after Clay’s memorial. “I was naturalized when I was 12, but it was something I took for granted.” She had driven down from New York City.

An estimated 30,000 adoptees lack citizenship because of the disconnected processes, according to the Adoptee Rights Campaign, known as ARC. The group is pressing Congress to grant citizenship to all adoptees regardless of when they came here.  Many advocates believe that had Clay been a citizen, he could still be alive in the U.S. today, even if he were in prison or a mental health facility.

“That number is staggering,” said Anne Montgomery, a Philadelphia advocate for the Adoptee Rights Campaign who attended Wednesday morning’s service. “It is unfortunate that we have to come together [over his death] to highlight this issue.”

Clay’s story was covered by the New York Times and news outlets in South Korea. TV Chosun had a crew following Clay’s ashes on the 6,900-mile journey.

Compton had met Clay in South Korea after he was deported and tried to help him. He recalled picking him up from prison and driving hours back to Seoul. They bought cigarettes and Egg McMuffins and argued about which technology giant was better, Apple or Samsung.

“I appreciate you all coming here to pay respects,” Compton told those gathered, “and to welcome him home.”

Clay’s adoptive parents did not attend the memorial. When it was over and the room cleared out, Compton said he would place the urn back in the box, gather up the flowers, and deliver Clay’s remains to his family.

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