exposing the dark side of adoption
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U.S. immigration law without mercy


Fred Hiatt

The Fayetteville Observer

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 month. 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 respiratory therapist).

As in most such cases, Gaul's own law-breaking helped land him where he is. “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.

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.

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 deportable and deported.

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.”

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.

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 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.

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

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. 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 said Lee at least deserves to have his waiver request considered. The INS is appealing.

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 4