CHAMPAIGN — A former Urbana business owner who had to leave the United States when he couldn't get permanent residency status is back — and once again in business.
Leon Odendaal, who operated PDQ Printing Services in Urbana from 2007 to 2010, returned to his native South Africa in 2011.
But he and his wife, Hester, were there only a few months before they got an opportunity to return to the U.S. — this time as the parents of U.S. servicemen.
Their younger son, Travis, entered the National Guard in April 2011, and their older son, Lenhardt, went into the Army that September.
Once Travis completed boot camp, he was eligible to sponsor his parents for legal permanent residency.
Leon and Hester Odendaal returned to Champaign County last year, and Leon subsequently trained as an Allstate agent.
On March 1, he opened his agency's office at 2919 Crossing Court, Suite 10, in southwest Champaign.
The family — who put their house near Homer Lake on the market when they had to leave — eventually sold the property.
Now that they've returned, they're renting a house not far from Parkland College, where their daughter Samantha is a student.
Leon Odendaal, now 55, initially came to the U.S. in late 2006, hoping to operate a business here.
While in South Africa, he had operated a printing business, a security-guard firm, a first-aid supply business and a cash loan company.
But he was concerned about crime there and didn't see a future for his children in South Africa.
So he bought PDQ Printing, added new capabilities and built the firm's revenues by 40 to 45 percent over the three years he owned it.
Unfortunately, his efforts toward getting a green card fell short.
Jeff Hays, a Champaign attorney who took Odendaal's case after he was denied legal permanent residency, said Odendaal came to the U.S. on an "L" visa for intercompany transfers.
"He had a company in South Africa and was able to buy a company in Urbana and transfer himself as an executive from the South African company to buy, manage and improve a U.S. company — which he did," Hays said. "He did everything he said he was going to do."
But Odendaal's request for permanent residency was denied for two reasons, Hays said.
One was a timing issue, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services claiming that Odendaal applied too soon. The other was the issue of whether PDQ was a new or existing company.
"He started a new legal entity to buy the existing business," Hays said.
Because of that, CIS took the position that it was a new business — not an established business that had been improved.
While the decision may have been legal, it was "irrational," Hays said, noting that Odendaal had built the business and provided jobs for U.S. workers.
The bottom line: Odendaal had to leave. He sold the PDQ building, as well as PDQ's customer list and equipment, and returned to South Africa.
"We were always positive about everything," Odendaal said. "We knew we were going to come back, but we didn't know how."
The "how" ended up being his sons volunteering for military service and subsequently becoming citizens.
"Because they were U.S. citizens and over 21 years of age, they could petition for their parents as immediate relatives," Hays said.
Odendaal said Travis committed to spending six years in the National Guard and Lenhardt committed to at least eight years in the Army — three years full time and five years in the Reserves.
Odendaal said their service to the nation makes him, as a father, "both proud and scared at the same time."
Travis Odendaal said he became a U.S. citizen on July 7, after completing nine weeks of basic training for the Guard.
"I joined the military, got citizenship through them, and that's how I was able to keep my parents here," he said.
The commitment is lengthy, he said, but so was his parents' struggle to gain permanent residency.
Travis, who went to St. Joseph-Ogden High School, works at Farm and Fleet in Urbana and does vehicle maintenance for the National Guard.
After Leon Odendaal returned to the U.S. last year, he began researching possible franchise opportunities.
He learned of the opportunity with Allstate from Gary Jacobson, vice president of Midwest Communications Group in Urbana.
Jacobson said he knew Odendaal from his years at PDQ.
"I was impressed with the way he took hold of the business ... and built it back up," Jacobson said. "He did a terrific job of reaching out to the community and meeting people."
Jacobson said he was "amazed and disappointed" when immigration authorities wouldn't allow Odendaal to remain in the U.S.
Jacobson said he disapproves of people who take advantage of the immigration system, but Odendaal seemed to do everything right — he contributed to the community, employed people at PDQ, provided valuable services.
"The idea that he's not good enough didn't make any sense," Jacobson said.
Hays, the attorney, credits Odendaal's eventual success to perseverance.
He developed a business, had to sell it, suffered severe tax consequences as a result, was separated from his children when he had to return to South Africa, and had the hassle of dealing with consulates there.
"When I say he persevered, he persevered," Hays said. To achieve permanent residency status legally "takes money, time, effort and a great deal of patience," he said.
In the Odendaals' case, it also ended up requiring a sacrifice on the part of the sons.
"The family considered the benefits versus the burden," Hays said, noting that Lenhardt and Travis could be deployed overseas in a war zone.
Odendaal said he and his wife are committed to becoming U.S. citizens in five years.
He figures over the years, he spent between $30,000 and $50,000 trying to gain residency status for his family.
"I'm back. I love being back. I love what I'm doing," he said.
Odendaal said if former PDQ customers want to chat with him or if people having immigration problems want to talk, he's available.
"I can't give legal advice," he said, "but I'll be a cheerleading team."