Defending America's Least Wanted

A Specialist Performs Post–9-11 Immigration Triage

They are locked together in a five-by-seven prison visiting room with cinder block walls and steel doors. In the past 20 minutes, the young Pakistani man has descended from hope to confusion to despair. He had expected the lawyer to save him.

"In the human sense, you are right. But the law says no," attorney Sin Yen Ling told him last Thursday, like a doctor trying to explain why good people fall ill. It is a contradiction she has had to acknowledge perhaps hundreds of times to men from his country and other Muslim nations since the government began detaining them in disproportionate numbers after the September 11 terrorist attacks. She has almost completely lost her voice, but she strains to sound emphatic.

The man slumps in his prison scrubs. He thought he had done the right thing, going to the immigration office in downtown Manhattan and asking for more time to save up for a ticket back to Pakistan, rather than simply miss his departure deadline and disappear. But still he was arrested and put in this New Jersey jail. He is to remain behind bars until he is deported, possibly several months from now if the prevailing trend applies. And because the INS has decided to deport him, rather than let him leave the country on his own dime, he will likely be barred for as long as 10 years from returning to the woman he cares about here.

Immigration attorney Sin Yen Ling: "At this point, I'm motivated by anger."
photo: Keith Bedford
Immigration attorney Sin Yen Ling: "At this point, I'm motivated by anger."

"You are going to have to prepare yourself emotionally," says Ling. He is not looking at her anymore but blinking hard at his hands. She has only just met him, having come to visit as a favor to a community advocate she knows from Midwood, Brooklyn's Pakistani enclave. She is already representing over a dozen Muslim immigrants in court and in any given week advising many dozens more, all at no charge. She could get up now and walk away and not feel she is shirking.

Instead she says, "I'll write a letter to your immigration officer." The man looks up, hope returning. Ling hurries to squash it. "He will say no," she warns. "But I will try." There is that part of her that loathes giving up, no matter how bad the odds, without a fight.

Gunning her 10-year-old Nissan Sentra back through the Holland Tunnel a few minutes later, Ling, 28, says, "I've had many men break down in front of me since September 11." Before then she had never worked in immigration, but she toughened up battling hate crimes and police misconduct at a civil rights group. Since devoting herself to the task of defending America's least wanted—Muslim men from the Middle East and South Asia—she has succumbed to tears just once. It was back at the office after a judge slapped her with a gag order on a "special-interest case." She cannot explain why she cried, because to do so would reveal enough about the circumstances to get her law license revoked.

"It's a fascinating case," she says with unexpected enthusiasm, like an oncologist studying a morbid yet still intriguing prognosis. It is this true curiosity, along with "a sense of humor, and anger," that has kept Ling going 12 hours a day, seven days a week, including Christmas and New Year's days, without complaint or caffeine. Prominent rights groups have loudly condemned the civil liberties infringements in post-September 11 immigrant detentions, but defending controversial individuals has been a less popular cause entirely. "It's about, 'Do you belong here? No? Then too bad,' " says Ling. But she is sensitive to the complicated needs of her mostly working-class clients, to the socioeconomic forces that push foreigners to maneuver their way into the U.S. and try to stay despite being unwanted.

Following Ling for a few days, as the Voice did last week, captures the scope of recent troubles for Muslim immigrants in the U.S. She sees clients through deportation cases, interviews with the Justice Department, and detention in common prisons. In the process she serves as a default psychologist, family counselor, and neighborhood sage. As one of a handful of staff attorneys at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Lower Manhattan-based nonprofit, Ling earns an annual salary of $41,000, although the more than 50 immigration court cases she has argued pro bono since September 11 would have netted a private lawyer $3000 to $5000 apiece. (AALDEF cannot afford to hire another like her, Ling says, because despite its commitment to representing detainees of diverse nationalities, "we've got 'Asian' in our name, so we don't get the donations an ACLU would.") Ling is a precious commodity, her name and face known in Muslim communities all over. It is not a stretch to say she is among the most competent and productive (and certainly affordable) detention practitioners in the tri-state area and perhaps the country.

And the Cantonese-speaking daughter of Chinese immigrants—a graduate of CUNY law school who lives with her father in Elmhurst, Queens—knows it. "The knowledge I have is extremely valuable," she says. "I wish I had time to write it all up."

Ling's self-confidence comes in handy in Newark's immigration court last Tuesday morning. The judge has made toast of the several claims that precede hers. Her Honor tends to modulate her voice for maximum fright, from low to thunderous, soft to cutting. She pitches forward on her elevated perch, narrows her lips, glares. Her impatience with the shackled detainees in bright prison jumpsuits crowding her courtroom is matched only by her disdain for their lawyers.

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