For the chance to live in America people walk for days across sprawling desert, traverse thrashing waves in small boats, hand over life savings to men whom they aren’t sure they can trust, and do all sorts of other things only desperate people do, including lie about their past.
In December 2012, FBI agents arrested more than two dozen people who allegedly helped Chinese immigrants lie about their past. Prosecutors charged that these defendants coached immigrants on how to submit false asylum claims that increased their chances of staying in the U.S. Since then, 25 of the 30 defendants have been convicted. And on Friday, a federal judge in Manhattan sentenced three of them to three months in prison.
Song Luo, Zeyuan Wang, and Yong Zhang had each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to commit immigration fraud. A federal indictment claimed that the men, who were paralegals, “made up stories of persecution that usually followed one of three fact patterns: (a) forced abortions performed against woman clients pursuant to China’s family planning policy; (b) persecution based on the client’s belief in Christianity; or (c) political or ideological persecution, typically for membership in China’s Democratic Party or followers of Falun Gong.”
Prosecutors charged that, from January 2009 to December 2010, the paralegals prepared the asylum-seekers for their interviews with immigration officials and sometimes served as translators in those interviews.
Services cost thousands of dollars, but the benefits can be life-changing. Those who receive asylum can immediately work in the country and are eligible for a green card after a year. Those who had been here illegally become legal residents. The cost and the risk might seem trivial when staring at the long and complicated legal immigration process.
The FBI’s three-year investigation led to indictments against employees at 10 law firms that combined to file nearly 2,000 asylum applications, though law enforcement officials stated that they didn’t know how many of those were fraudulent.
Most of the defendants were arrested in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Some of those facing charges have defended their practice. The immigration system, most everyone agrees, is broken. There is less agreement, of course, on how to fix it. Naturally, in the meantime, an underground market bloomed.
“We are doing work like the last stop on the Underground Railroad,” one lawyer, David Miao, told the New York Times. “If we didn’t do this, they will be sent back to China. We save lives.”
Luo, Wang, and Zhang worked at the same law firm in Manhattan. During the years of the investigation, the firm submitted 429 asylum applications. Prosecutors charged that the paralegals forged documents–including visas, border crossing cards, and alien registration receipt cards–in order to give the client the best chance at approval.
America, after all, is not quick to grant asylum. In New York, more than 80 percent of asylum-seekers from Chine were denied last year.
Next: the indictment.