Bad Counsel

The Arrest of an Immigration Lawyer Charged With Smuggling Turns Up the Heat on the INS

According to a case manager at the 56-bed juvenile residence, at least three of the Chinese kids currently in custody there were on Porges's client list when he was arrested on September 20. And though the U.S. attorney's office, which issued the indictment, cannot disclose how many open cases the firm was handling at the time of the arrest, the indictment alleges that over the last seven years, Porges and his associates represented nearly 7000 Chinese asylum cases, so it's a fair guess that at least hundreds of erstwhile clients are now left in the lurch. Whether the INS will give these clients extra time to secure new counsel remains to be seen—INS spokesperson Mark Thorn says that cases will be considered "on an individual basis." It is difficult for any detainee to find representation, but whether these immigrants, stripped of the fees they already gave Porges, will have any money left to hire an attorney for their asylum cases, which can cost anywhere from $2000 to $7000, is also impossible to know.

But just as important a question is whether, even if they do get good, honest representation, they will get a fair hearing. "No doubt the arrest of Mr. Porges puts a cloud of suspicion over those who were his clients," says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Immigration Project at UNITE, the garment union. "But the fact that they were so desperate to come here that they went with a snakehead does not tell us anything other than that they were indeed desperate. After all they've been through, their stories of persecution in many ways should be heard with extra care."

The extent of the smuggling operations, too, suggests something about the failure of U.S. immigration policy. Even as the U.S. joins in an international effort to crack down on human trafficking, steps up interdictions at sea, and applies new racketeering laws to the likes of Porges, it cannot stanch the flow of some 1 million people who leave China each year, according to United Nations estimates.

"They catch one snakehead or one lawyer and another soon comes to take his place," notes Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association. "People will keep coming as long as the government doesn't address the more basic issue: the sweatshop situation." As long as there is demand for cheap, unskilled labor, people looking for a better life—whether in purely economic terms, or in terms U.S. law recognizes as deserving of political asylum—will provide a steady supply, Lam explains, and as long as labor laws are not enforced, making these jobs unacceptable to legal U.S. residents and citizens, the demand only increases.

Meanwhile, the factors that push Chinese away from their homeland are likely to be exacerbated by the recent approval of permanent normalized trade with China, Chishti and Lam agree. "Trade was the only leverage the U.S. had on human rights issues," says Chishti. "Without that leverage, it's likely that the abuses will only get worse." Meanwhile, adds Lam, burgeoning development in Chinese cities will pull more laborers in from the rural areas, and as they flood the job markets there, the surplus workers, like those in Mexico, will look to New York, which has some of the lowest wages and most meager enforcement standards in the U.S.

In announcing the arrest of Porges, INS commissioner Doris Meissner noted that "Manhattan attorneys in three-piece suits do not typically come to mind when the public pictures the criminals who traffic in human cargo." But for those with a deep economic analysis of the smuggling operations, three-piece suits have indeed been part of the picture, especially as worn by the bosses of garment shops and New York restaurants. As long as demand for cheap consumer goods and services, and thus for cheap labor, keeps on escalating in the boom economy, says Chishti, the best way to put an end to the trafficking in human cargo is to "liberalize immigration policy."

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