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With 'Blue Bayou,' Filmmaker Justin Chon Asks: Who Decides Who Is American?


Earlier this hour, we talked about the difficulty of fixing an immigration system that just about everybody says is broken. Here's another look at that issue through a very different lens, the new film "Blue Bayou" that opened last week in theaters. Though fiction, it's based on the reality faced by thousands of adoptees, possible deportation because of a lack of U.S. citizenship. NPR's Alyssa Jeong Perry has more.

ALYSSA JEONG PERRY, BYLINE: "Blue Bayou" opens in New Orleans, where Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist, sits in a restaurant with a small child next to him as he interviews for a job.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Antonio LeBlanc - how you get a last name like that?

JUSTIN CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) I was adopted.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where you from?

CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) I'm from about a hour north of Baton Rouge, you know, small town called St. Francis Villa.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where are you from, like born?

CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) I see what you mean. I was born in Korea.

JEONG PERRY: Korean American Justin Chon wrote and directed the film and stars as the Korean adoptee Antonio, a new father who faces deportation back to Korea after a few run-ins with the law. Here's director Chon.

CHON: I'm not an adoptee. And I could never even begin to understand what that experience is like. My purpose as a filmmaker is - first and foremost, is to bring empathy to our community, that being Asian Americans.

JEONG PERRY: As he wrote the film, Chon consulted with several adoptees. As an actor, he wanted to convey their complicated feelings, including the specific perspectives of Asian Americans caught in the immigration system. Telling one story about immigration and adoption is ambitious and rarely told in mainstream media. I know because I'm a Korean adoptee myself. And I've been reporting on the deportation of adoptees from the U.S. for the past six years. That's when I met Adam Crapser. Like Antonio, he's a Korean adoptee who was facing deportation back to Korea. Chon says he used some of Crapser's story as research for "Blue Bayou."

CHON: He's definitely the poster child. I'm absolutely familiar with him.

JEONG PERRY: I met with Crapser at his home in the Pacific Northwest in 2015.


ADAM CRAPSER: What do you want baby? What can I get for you?

JEONG PERRY: Crapser's holding his baby while we talk right after he was arrested by ICE. He's telling me about the day agents showed up to his door.

CRAPSER: And they came in. And then when they had - said that they were Homeland Security, I already knew.

JEONG PERRY: Up to an estimated 64,000 U.S. adoptees born abroad could be without citizenship, according to the Adoptee Rights Campaign. Gregory Luce is an immigration lawyer and also an adoptee. He helps adoptees without citizenship obtain legal status. He says this problem started because of neglect from the U.S. government. It only cared about getting the children into the arms of American parents, not what happens to them as an adult.

GREGORY LUCE: And the idea of citizenship was left up to the parents.

JEONG PERRY: Before 2001, children adopted from abroad weren't granted automatic citizenship when they came to the U.S. But in 2001, the government tried to fix the problem and gave automatic citizenship to kids coming to America that year. But that left many kids who were adopted before 2001, like Antonio and Crapser, left out.

LUCE: So we have a hodgepodge now today, where some have automatic citizenship. Many don't. And many people don't know what their status is.

JEONG PERRY: But there's a bill sitting in Congress now that could fix all of this. It's called the Adoption Citizenship Act. If passed, it would allow adoptees, regardless of age, to receive automatic citizenship and to create a path of return for adoptees already deported.

Becky Belcore is a Korean adoptee and the executive director of NAKASEC, a nonprofit focused on Korean and Asian American communities. NAKASEC has advocated for adoptee citizenship since learning about Crapser's deportation case in 2015. Belcore says the film "Blue Bayou's" immigration theme is so timely because adoptees now are living without legal status and facing deportation.

BECKY BELCORE: I just wish the film at the end could have been - directed people - or let people know there is a piece of legislation called the Adoptee Citizenship Act. They can contact their members of Congress to ask them to be supportive of it, to be a bill cosigner to help pass the bill.

CHON: I didn't want to make a film that felt like a propaganda piece. I didn't want the main character to be perfect. I wanted him to be flawed and human.

JEONG PERRY: So throughout "Blue Bayou," we're left to wonder if the federal government will judge Antonio on his past choices, separate him from his family and send him back to Korea. Back in 2015, just like Antonio, the fate of Adam Crapser's life was in the hands of the government.

CRAPSER: I'm traumatizing myself again because the federal government is making me. They're forcing me to.

JEONG PERRY: Crapser was ultimately deported in 2016 to Korea, separated from his family. Chon says he wants the intention of the film to ask...

CHON: Who gets to decide who's an American? And do people also deserve second chances?

JEONG PERRY: For now, Crapser told me he has another five years living abroad before he can apply to re-enter the U.S. Alyssa Jeong Perry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.