Crimes, law return son to land he hardly knows

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Date: 1999-02-23

Crimes, law return son to land he hardly knows

Amy Herdy
St. Petersburg Times
February 23, 1999

“After bringing home the toddler she and her husband adopted from Thailand, Pam Gaul felt her life was complete. Twenty years later, it's being ripped apart. On Monday, immigration officials deported her only child to Bangkok, with little prospect of his ever returning to the United States. Gaul plans to fly there Wednesday to help her son adjust to his native but completely unfamiliar country.

John Gaul III's fate is the result of a get-tough Congress, forgotten paperwork and a teenage run-in with the law. As he trades his American life for an uncertain future in Thailand, his mother vows to continue fighting to change federal law, even if her son's battle is lost. "The purpose of the original legislation was to combat terrorism," she said. "It was not to tear families apart."

Until Monday, Gaul sat in a Bradenton jail cell through months of unsuccessful appeals. Finally, his mother said, she stopped the process to save Gaul's spirit. "He went through a spell where he was languishing," Pam Gaul said. "The light had gone out of his eyes." And while she's happy he will be able to get on with his life, she's angry at lawmakers who passed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The law expanded the list of felonies for which non-citizens could be deported and made it retroactive. It's harsh, Gaul said, and should address hard-core criminals, not people like her son.

"Unless we turn this law around and regain our sensitivity to the family," she said, "he will never return. Never." Because he and his mother appealed his case, Gaul, 25, will not be allowed to petition to return to the United States for 20 years, and his mother doubts he would be granted approval even then.

And so, as she prepares to help him start a new life, she mourns that she won't be there to share it with him. She plans to stay in Bangkok for two weeks but must return to the United States and her job as a respiratory therapist to support her son financially through his transition.

Her heart's longing for motherhood led Gaul and her husband, John, to adopt their son from Bangkok through an international agency in 1979. In the first photo they saw of him, he was sickly and small for a 2-year-old. The process took more than two years. The Gauls and the child they named John III exchanged pictures and mail as they waited.

She remembers seeing him for the first time at JFK International Airport in New York. "When he saw us, he started shouting, "Mai! Pai!' "she said, which in Thai means "mom" and "dad." She began to cry. "That was my son."

After completing the adoption in New Jersey, where they lived at the time, they were issued an American birth certificate, which they filed with the state. They kept keepsakes of his heritage: a Peter Pan tape in Thai, some bracelets and a Buddhist medallion. "At first it was very relevant," Gaul said, but "he became Americanized."

In 1982 Pam and her son moved to Tampa -- she and her husband had separated -- where John attended private school and played soccer, baseball and basketball. Though his parents later divorced, John remained close to his father. When John was 17, the family planned an overseas trip. He applied for a passport. It was denied.

"Even though he had an American birth certificate and American parents, he was not recognized as being a citizen," Pam Gaul said. Because he was adopted by American parents, John could have been granted automatic citizenship if the Gauls had filed the proper application with the U.S. authorities before John became an adult. But they never knew that, Pam Gaul said. After they learned of the situation, Pam Gaul immediately applied for her son's citizenship. The Immigration and Naturalization Service rejected it because she submitted the wrong fee. She submitted a second packet with the correct fee while her son was still 17, she said, but by the time it was processed and a hearing scheduled, John Gaul had turned 18. At that point, he was no longer eligible for automatic citizenship through adoption.

The family was devastated. "We talked on the way home," Gaul said, "about how he could study, take the test. Then he got into trouble, and that was that." The trouble she referred to was a gang called the Latin Kings, which Gaul believes her son joined to find an identity.

At 19, he was convicted in Tampa of writing worthless checks and stealing a car, both felonies. He served 20 months in state prison and planned to apply for citizenship when he was released Dec. 31, 1996. Neither he nor his mother was aware of the changed law, she said. When he was released, immigration officials took him straight to the deportation center in Bradenton, where he stayed four months before his mother bailed him out.

Despite an immigration judge's ruling that the INS was "totally to blame" for taking too long to process Gaul's application, there was nothing anyone could do: The 1996 law also took away immigration judges' discretion to overturn contested deportation cases. Last July, Gaul was ordered back to the Bradenton jail cell to await deportation, which finally happened Monday.

Now Gaul is carrying a letter written in Thai, which he does not understand, explaining his situation to Thai immigration officials and asking that he be turned over to Holt International, the agency that arranged his adoption. This is his mother's only comfort: The same two social workers who were his caseworkers when he was a toddler are meeting Gaul today when he arrives at the Bangkok airport. They have been working to find him a place to live and a school to attend.

Although her son has been tutored in Thai culture, Gaul fears Thai officials will see him only as a U.S. criminal outcast. But that's not her biggest fear. "It's that he might feel so rejected," she said through tears, "that he will lose hope.” We're all part of an American family, and this is the total rejection."

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