Despite adversity, deportee now has new life

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Date: 2000-08-28

Despite adversity, deportee now has new life

A former area man sent back to Thailand is married and working, but his mother says he was among the fortunate.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 2000

TAMPA -- Although he was forced to leave the United States for a strange land thousands of miles away, John Gaul III has done remarkably well in the past two years.

He is teaching English to adults and children in Bangkok, Thailand. He has his own apartment and recently got married. He has made many new friends, who don't know and probably wouldn't care about his teenage run-ins with the law.

"The Thai government has given him a second chance; it's a chance this country should have given him," says his mother, Pam. "He should not havebeen forced to go around the world to have the opportunity to begin again."

Gaul, 26, is among the many non-citizens with criminal records who have been deported under the 1996 Immigration Reform Act even though their crimes were committed before the law took effect.

Criticism of the retroactive provisions has reached such a pitch that Congress is considering several bills, including one by Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, that would amend the law and spare other families what the Gauls have gone through.

Pam Gaul is not a bitter woman. But she wonders what really motivated McCollum, an Orlando-area Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate.

"I would like to ask him why he was willing to write a private bill (to help) one particular young man and not write a blanket bill that would
cover all of these children," she says. "I sometimes wonder: Has his heart changed because he sees how devastating this is to families, or has his heart changed because it's an election year?"

Although he was a strong backer of the 1996 deportation law, McCollum introduced a private bill last year that would have allowed the deported son of a GOP official to return from Canada. The man was banished from the United States after serving four years in a Florida prison on several felony charges.

McCollum could not be reached for comment for this story. However, he said at the time that he introduced the private measure, which did not pass, because it was the only recourse then available.

"The foundation for those private bills is something exceptional, unusual, extraordinary and an injustice, if not corrected," McCollum said. "This case clearly falls within the parameters of that."

The Gauls' own problems stemmed from 1979, when Pam and her then-husband adopted a toddler from Thailand. Because his adoptive parents were American, John could have been granted automatic U.S. citizenship if the Gauls had filed the proper paperwork before he became an adult. But they never knew that, Pam Gaul says.

After he was denied a passport at age 17, his mother immediately applied for his citizenship. It was rejected because she enclosed the wrong fee; a subsequent application with the correct fee was not processed until John had turned 18. By then he was no longer eligible for automatic citizenship.

At 19, Gaul fell in with the wrong crowd and was convicted of stealing a car and writing worthless checks. He served 20 months in prison and planned to apply for citizenship when he was relased in late 1996. Neither he nor his mother was aware of the new deportation law, so they were stunned when officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service took him straight from prison to the detention center in Bradenton.

The Gauls battled his deportation order for months. Despite a judge's ruling that the INS was "totally to blame" for taking too long to process the citizenship application, there was nothing anyone could do. The 1996 law also took away judges' discretion to overturn contested deportation cases.

Gaul finally gave up the fight so he could get on with his life.

"I can't live like this anymore," he said.

In a way, the Gauls were fortunate. Before he was deported, Pam Gaul was able to put together "a safety net" in Thailand that included the
caseworkers who had handled his adoption so many years before. Without the help of the agency's staffers Gaul, who spoke no Thai, "probably would have become a street person," his mother says.

"I feel for other parents this happens to when they cannot put anything into place," she says. "It's almost hopeless when you think of what could happen. There was a young man with John in detention who was going back to South America -- he was going by himself and he didn't even know Spanish."

Gaul has since learned Thai, married a "lovely young Thai gal who just got her college degree" and all in all is "doing beautifully," his mother says. They talk by phone once a week and e-mail each other every other day.

But there has been a heavy emotional and financial toll. Pam Gaul, a respiratory therapist, has spent thousands of dollars making three trips to Thailand to see her son and help him move into an apartment.

Unless the law is changed, he cannot apply for readmission to the United States for another 18 years. He was unable to attend his grandmother's funeral in June, and he can't bring his new wife to visit the country where he grew up.

His mother is angry there has been so little attention -- until now -- to a law that has torn apart so many families. But she tries to look at the good that has emerged from what could have been a disastrous situation.

"It's a matter of us just constantly reinforcing the idea that you take what you have and make the best of it and grow," she says. "Thailand is
known as "the Land of Smiles' and I like that philosophy -- he's taken that up and I think it's wonderful."

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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