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Deported Adoptee's Remains to Be Returned to U.S.

The ashes of Phillip Clay, who was adopted as a child by an American family before being deported as an adult, are scheduled to be returned to the U.S.
A portrait of Phillip Clay displayed at his funeral in South Korea.
A portrait of Phillip Clay displayed at his funeral in South Korea.Courtesy of Simone Eun Mi

The ashes of a man who died in May, several years after being deported to South Korea despite being adopted and raised in the United States, are scheduled to be flown to his adoptive family next week.

Phillip Clay was 42 when he was found dead outside an apartment building on May 21 in Goyang, a city north of Seoul, in an apparent suicide. His body was cremated and the Korean government paid to store his urn, according to Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A’.L), an adoptee-run nonprofit based in Seoul.

A portrait of Phillip Clay displayed at his funeral in South Korea.
A portrait of Phillip Clay displayed at his funeral in South Korea.Courtesy of Simone Eun Mi

Now, representatives from the group are planning to bring Clay’s remains back to his adopted parents.

G.O.A’.L internal adviser and American adoptee John Compton is expected to escort Clay’s remains to Incheon International Airport July 13 — where a small farewell vigil is scheduled to be held — and then to Hawaii and Dallas before ending his journey in Philadelphia on July 19, according to the nonprofit.

Compton knew Clay personally, he told NBC News, and picked him up with Korean Adoption Services (KAS) — an adoptee support group that works with South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare — from a Korean prison, where Clay served two years for assault not long after being deported, according to KAS.

“I was in Italy and turned my phone back on to several messages notifying me,” Compton told NBC News about his first time hearing of Clay’s death. “It really made my heart sink, because I have been advocating for him and others to get the necessary help they need.”

RELATED: Deported Adoptee’s Death Heightens Calls for Citizenship Bill

Clay was adopted in 1983 into a Pennsylvania family and grew up in the U.S., though he never became a naturalized citizen, according to KAS. During the next 29 years, he accrued a criminal history for theft and drug-related offenses, and in 2012 a judge ordered him to be deported back to his birth country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has told NBC News.

Clay's death has revived calls by advocates for Congress to make changes to a law known as the Child Citizenship Act, which automatically grants U.S. citizenship to minor children adopted by American parents but did not apply to adoptees who were already adults by the time the law passed in February 2001.

Clay did not speak Korean, and continued to struggle with bipolar disorder as well as alcohol and substance abuse while living between various mental institutions and shelters, according to KAS.

Compton was initially curious as to why Clay's remains were not sent back to the U.S. He contacted Clay's adoptive parents to see if they would allow him to return Clay's remain to them. They accepted, according to KAS.

Compton contacted the U.S. Embassy in Seoul himself to check if Clay was admissible to the U.S. — he was, Compton said. Compton noted that he has been coordinating with the embassy’s American Citizen Services and KAS staff to organize Clay’s homecoming.

The State Department declined to comment on the situation.

“When I picked Phillip up, I spoke to him about the Adoptee Citizenship Act and asked him whether or not he would return to the U.S. if there was a pathway,” Compton said of his meeting with Clay. “He responded, ‘yes, I don't really have anything to do here.’”

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