exposing the dark side of adoption
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Fred Hiatt

Watertown Daily Times

JOHN GAUL III was adopted by American parents when he was 4 years old. He grew up in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. He played basketball and attended Baptist church. Though he was born in Thailand, he speaks no Thai, has no Thai relatives, knows nothing of Thai culture and has never been back.

Never, that is, until last Monday. That's when the U.S. government deported him to Thailand, declared that distant Asian country his home and - sending shivers through the wide community of international adoptions - left him there to make his own way.

At age 25, Gaul had run afoul of anti-immigration laws Congress passed in 1996 to crack down on crime. In 20 years, he will be eligible to apply for readmission to the United States and be reunited with his father (an Air Force sergeant) and mother (a night-shift respiratory therapist).

As in most such cases, Gaul's own law-breaking helped land him where he is. But his story has a special poignancy, in part because he is also a victim of government mistakes.

"In my opinion, the Immigration Service is totally to blame in this case," immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh opined back in 1997. But McHugh also ruled that because Congress had eliminated any possibility of discretion in deportation cases, he couldn't save Gaul from his fate.

The Gauls are just one of many families that have been ripped apart by the 1996 laws. Congress expanded the number of crimes for which a legal immigrant could be deported to include minor theft or drug possession. It removed all judicial discretion from the process: no more mercy for exceptional cases.

And it made the new laws retroactive, so that immigrants who had committed a crime, paid the price and disclosed all to authorities suddenly found themselves - in some cases after years of peaceful, law-abiding living - deportable and deported.

The idea was to speed the expulsion of undesirables, and that goal has been achieved. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has deported almost 300,000 people during the past two years, about double the previous two-year total.

Most of those deportees were people who shouldn't be here. But too many of them - thousands, almost surely-are getting a raw deal.

Gaul was one of the tens of thousands of babies and toddlers adopted by Americans from overseas (there were about 14,000 such adoptions last year). Neither they nor their parents think of themselves in any sense as immigrants. He is Pam Gaul's only child, and she is "devastated," as she told the judge, that he is being "taken from me."

The Gauls obtained an American birth certificate for John shortly after adopting him and didn't realize until he was 17, when he applied for a passport, that he had not been naturalized. They immediately filed papers.

"The respondent's paperwork was submitted on time," McHugh said, but the INS took forever. By the time the government was ready, John had turned 18 and it was too late.

That's when Gaul got into trouble, joining a gang and eventually being convicted of car theft and credit card fraud. He served 20 months in prison. Until he was deported, he was working at an auto-parts shop and paying restitution.

Susan Cox, vice president of Holt International adoption agency, said she knows of at least 10 other adoptees now in detention awaiting deportation, all of them in their twenties or thirties, all of whose naturalizations somehow fell through the cracks.

"I was adopted from Korea when I was 5, so I can identify," Cox says. "We don't speak the language or know the culture. John will always be the outsider."

The expulsions strike Cox as "one more example of people not believing adoption is as real as birth kids."

She said the deportations also are making people nervous in countries such as Korea and Thailand, where some officials always doubted America would truly accept their orphans.

But it's not just adoptees. Elaine Lee, a U.S. citizen in Fairfax County, Va., is about to lose her husband, Davey, who immigrated from Taiwan when he was 8. Like Gaul, Davey Lee committed crimes - car theft, drunk-driving and shooting at a stop sign while drunk.

But Davey changed after he met Elaine in 1991. He stopped drinking. He supports their family - her partially disabled 15-year-old son, their 3-year-old daughter. He hasn't been in trouble in years.

Under pre-1996 law, Lee would have been eligible for a waiver, and as the husband and father of U.S. citizens, he would have stood a good chance. In fact, he applied for a waiver way back in 1994.

But the Justice Department sat on his application until Congress passed the harsher laws - and until Attorney General Janet Reno ruled in 1997 that even the withdrawal of waiver authority should be retroactive. Then the INS said Lee should be deported.

He hasn't been yet, because U.S. District Court Judge Joyce Hens Green disagreed with what she called Reno's "creative but tortured reading" of the law. Judge Green said Lee at least deserves to have his waiver request considered. The INS is appealing.

"Well, it's your problem, you shouldn't have married him," one official told Elaine Lee.

Maybe most Americans would agree, but I doubt it. I think they would want the law to allow for the possibility that once in a while people deserve a second chance - even people who weren't born in America.

1999 Mar 6