Defending America's Least Wanted

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

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.

"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.

"She's kicked me out before. She kicks people out all the time," says Ling, unfazed as her Urdu interpreter, an older woman with graying hair, struggles to turn off a blaring cell phone. The judge's clerk eyes the interpreter with concern.

Ling is finally on, her client a Pakistani immigrant with a U.S. citizen wife and son whose gambling addiction caught up with him. He tried to pass off some bad checks, Ling explained earlier, and he was arrested about a month ago at his home in the Bronx by federal agents "with guns drawn." At a previous court hearing, the INS claimed her client had been ordered deported long ago under a different name. But the INS has been known to make mistakes, so Ling demanded documentation. The government is supposed to produce some today, but it doesn't.

"Before I can decide anything else, I need to find out if he's got a removal order," says the judge. Ling points out that the INS was supposed to establish that by today. The INS lawyer says, "I'll try to get an agent to look for [a deportation order]." Another court date is set for three weeks in the future, and the marshal comes to collect his charge.

Outside, Ling reassures the detainee's wife, "It helped that you were here. She's the type of judge who thinks, if you're a wife, you should be here." But Ling is careful not to make any promises. Once the wife leaves, she delivers a criticism of the system that is common in her field: "In immigration court, everything is against you. In regular criminal court, the prosecutor has to give you everything that is relevant to your case—the charges, the evidence, everything. I have to beg and plead with the INS lawyers for information. They won't give me a copy of the entire file. If I ask them to fax something, they'll say 'sure' and never fax it. So I'm sitting in court trying to make an argument, but I don't have what they have."

Moreover, there's something about Ling's Asian name and appearance that adds an extra complication. "Sometimes the judge thinks I am the client," she laughs. "Initially this was all depressing to me, but I'm past that. At this point, I'm motivated by anger. I'm just not going to let the government get away with depriving my clients of due process."

But these few minutes are all the time she has to dwell on INS court etiquette. Since hundreds of men were imprisoned in California last month when they showed up to comply with the first round of a nationality-based INS registration program, there has been widespread panic about the deadline on Friday, January 10. The guidelines for who has to register, and the possible consequences of not registering, are extremely complicated. (Essentially, all male visa holders ages 16 and older from a number of Muslim countries and North Korea must appear in person to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned.) Ling's phone rings constantly with queries from Brooklyn, Connecticut, San Francisco, Texas, Los Angeles, all over.

She races back to the 6-by-10, windowless office she shares with a co-worker, where her narrow desk is surrounded by file cabinets as tall as she. Slinging her coat over the back of her chair, Ling seats herself with the perfect posture of a ballet dancer and takes calls.

"When did you last enter the country? Are you married? Do you have children?" This one is unusual, a Pakistani man in Iowa who has recently traveled to Mexico and Australia. Ling assumes her best bedside manner, pleasant but all business. "You have a one-month-old baby? Congratulations," she says. With no great shift in tone, she asks questions whose answers could prove fatal: "Do you have a valid permit to work? Do you think anyone you know has used your name?" It is like asking how long a patient has had that strange-shaped mole.

During calls, she receives an e-mail from Ayub Ali Khan, one of the two men who made national headlines for being arrested September 12, 2001, on an Amtrak train in Texas, carrying box cutters and large sums of cash. He ultimately pled guilty to credit card fraud, not anything related to terrorism. Long after the world had forgotten him, while he waited in a New Jersey jail to be deported, Ling visited him. He flew to India in late December and is now writing to say hi: "Hello Sin Yen! How are you? First of all, I'd like to say Happy New Year!" The Indian authorities held him for a day after he landed, he writes, but now he is with his family and doing interviews with "many media."  

Ling breaks, not for lunch—she'll eat dinner at eight—but to meet with a colleague she supervises in tracking and preventing September 11-related hate crimes. On the way, Ling drops her cell phone, which has rung constantly all day, watching it break into several pieces. "OK, chill," she says to herself, scooping up the parts, "it's going to be cool." Striding briskly in high heels, she clicks the pieces back together, and it turns on fine.

She handles the hate crime reports from AALDEF community organizer Krittika Ghosh with as cool a head. Recent violence against South Asians in New York, including two documented killings, worries them both. But Ling advises Ghosh to be scientific. Get specific quotes and details from the South Asian family claiming biased harassment by their white neighbors, she says, to see whether theirs is not merely a personal dispute. If South Asian business owners think they are being unfairly ticketed by city inspectors, survey neighboring businesses to see how their experiences compare.

In the afternoon Ling is back on the phone doing damage control with the men who must decide within days whether to register with the INS. "You are at risk," she tells some. Those men face a difficult choice: comply with registration and risk deportation now, or skip registration and pay for it down the line if they are caught. Says Ling, "Even for those who are clean—no immigration violations themselves—they might have family members who are out of status. If they lie, they're fucked. If they don't lie, they screw their parents." The best she can do short of personally accompanying hundreds of men into the INS—and it is rumored lawyers are being barred from the interrogation stage—is to arm them with knowledge.

"They might ask you very uncomfortable questions," she tells them. "About your wife, why she married you. They might ask what mosque you go to. If you feel uncomfortable, don't say you're uncomfortable. Be straightforward, but don't give them too much information." She is not teaching them to lie, but alerting them to the misunderstandings, often due to culture or language differences, that she believes have landed some immigrants behind bars.

The calls continue many hours past the close of business, leaving her with half a voice and only the pre-dawn hours to prepare for a Muslim deportation case the next day in York, Pennsylvania.

Indeed, if September 11 created a general thirst for insight into America's Muslim immigrants, it gave those immigrants a desperate hunger for information themselves. The INS keeps creating new rules and severely punishing those who flout them, knowingly or not. So on some nights and most weekends, Ling heads out to the South Asian and Arab neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Jersey City, meeting the demand for information at its source with walk-in legal clinics she sets up in local groups' offices. On weekends last summer, she and two colleagues held know-your-rights sessions on street corners and at cultural festivals in 18 neighborhoods.

Last Friday night, about 100 men and a few women crammed into the storefront office of a Pakistani organization on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn to hear her advice. The January 10 registration had just wrapped up, and reports were coming in that some men had been detained. Immigration lawyers have been predicting chaos for the February 21 deadline, when men from New York's large Pakistani community will have to register. The room buzzes with anxiety.

Ling is cornered by one man who demands to know why visa holders must register, while the government fails to track the truly undocumented. "I know it doesn't make sense. But it's the law," says Ling.

Another man thinks he is exempt from registering because his lawyer once said she was submitting a political asylum claim on his behalf. Ling asks if his lawyer followed through. The man has no idea. Then there is the man who entered the U.S. years ago with a fake name but applied for a green card under his real one. "Should I go or not?" he asks. Another man wants to know if he's in trouble because he has married a different woman than the one who sponsored his visa. A woman who has been weeping hangs at the back of the crowd, perhaps waiting to ask advice on behalf of a loved one.  

Ling hands out business cards, inviting people with complicated cases to call later for confidential counseling. She says, "God forbid you get detained—and I'm not saying that's going to happen—call me collect."

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