It was almost 9 p.m. when "Jon," a Chinese immigrant who had been smuggled into the country through Mexico, entered my office.
I was Jon's immigration lawyer, and he had come to provide me with the original documents we intended to submit as evidence of his asylum claim. Almost a year earlier, Jon fled China after he was badly beaten by authorities for objecting to China's one-child policy. Jon's sister had given birth to a second child and, as a punishment, she had become ineligible for food coupons for both her children.
Jon left China after learning that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
Since the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was enacted in 1997, the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot grant asylum until checks on an applicant's identity and record have been completed. Jon seemed to have every piece of paper the Chinese government had generated on his sister and his case.
But when I explained to Jon that his documents would be verified in advance of his asylum hearing, he withdrew the papers. Every one of them was a fake, he admitted. I told Jon that I was ethically obligated to withdraw from his case
Two days later, a colleague called. He'd reviewed Jon's case and had one question: Does he pay?
In the last seven months, complaints about the INS have been unrelenting. Most lawyers won't tell you that, at least where political asylum is concerned, their profession bears substantial blame.
For most lawyers, the practice of immigration law is attractive simply because there are so many immigrants. There are over 100,000 new political asylum cases each year alone. But this volume also drives down rates and makes the lawyer less than diligent in assessing the credibility of his client's asylum claims. To be too diligent could mean one less fee.
Joseph Muto, a New York lawyer, was disbarred last month for acting as a front lawyer for an immigration "agency" specializing in illegal immigrants from China. An "agency" is a group of non-lawyers, with connections in the immigrant community, which performs the legal work on asylum cases and accepts payment directly from immigrants. The Departmental Disciplinary Committee contended that many of Muto's clients and fees came directly from these agencies, and that his work on those cases consisted only of court appearances.
Muto was a small-time operator when compared to Robert Porges, a Harvard lawyer who is serving six and a half years in a federal detention facility. Porges, according to the government, worked directly with Chinese immigrant smugglers, developing what some have called the largest political asylum practice in the country, a practice that generated at least $13,500,000.00 since 1993.
In September, 2000, he and his wife, Sheery Lu Porges, were charged in a 44-count federal indictment with crimes including racketeering and hostage taking. The Porgeses pleaded guilty to some of those charges in February.
Mary Jo White, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that Porges provided intelligence to alien smugglers, even suggesting the easiest points of entry into the United States. She also said that some of Porges' employees helped the smugglers seize the illegal immigrants upon arrival in the city and held them as "hostages" until the balance of their passage was paid.
It took the U.S. Attorney's Office years to develop the Porges case. The INS and Attorney General's office are now reviewing nearly 7,000 of Porges' asylum cases for fraud.
In 1999, Sheldon Walker, another immigration lawyer, was convicted of conspiracy, mail fraud and making false statements to the INS. The government contended that Walker had simply fabricated entire asylum claims.
Attorney Paul Freedman voluntarily surrendered his license to practice law in 1995 after the government accused him of filing hundreds of false political asylum claims. At the time, Freedman's pending caseload was so great that the government had to enlist an entire law clinic at the City University's Law School to handle the cases.
Immigration law is considered so lucrative that even non-lawyers are getting in on the act: A South African national who had succeeded in his own political asylum claim was convicted of fraud in 1999 after posing as an immigration lawyer and bilking "clients" out of at least $50,000.00
Yet, a solution for reform that could clean up the dirtier corners of immigration law is already being used as a safeguard against abuse in other areas of law practice.
The New York State Supreme Court mandates that each attorney file a retainer statement with the Office of Court Administration when he takes on a contingency or matrimonial case. That statement requires the attorney to disclose, among other things, the identity of the person who referred the case to him. The attorney must also file a closing statement accounting for every penny of the fee, including the amounts of all costs and disbursements, the identities of the parties to whom they were made, and even the payment dates.
The attorney must affirm the truthfulness of the retainer and closing statements. These documents have the effect of sworn testimony. Many lawyers have been disbarred for failing to file or filing false retainer and closing statements.
What if every immigration lawyer was compelled to disclose the source of every client referral and fee at the inception of every case? What if this information became part of the public record as soon as an immigration lawyer took on a client?
The effects of such a requirement would be immense. It would immediately cause wavering lawyers to end their relationships with immigration agencies. Those corrupt enough to conceal the source of their cases would be risking disbarment with every retainer statement they file. Through cross-referencing, authorities could detect agencies discrete enough to refer to multiple lawyers.
Jon may very well have escaped genuine persecution and have been deserving of political asylum. Wherever he is, he's one of the lucky ones. The desperate people who take their chances with illegal immigrant smugglers are often subjected to horrendous abuse and many don't survive the journey. American lawyers who profit off this practice betray the very ideals of freedom and justice for which so many risk so much to come to America.
Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994. He founded his own New York City firm in 1997, specializing in immigration law and representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He recently left the practice for the "more normal life" of insurance defense. He lives in Bergen County, N.J.