Robert Edwin Porges (aka "Lawyer Bao")
Chinese Immigration Lawyer Jailed
Sing Tao Daily, World Journal, Sept. 21, 2000
Top immigration lawyer
serving New York City's Chinese community Robert Porges was
led out in handcuffs from his "lawyers building" at 401 Broadway,
near Manhattan's Chinatown last week.
In the seven years Porges
and his team of lawyers were operating, he is said to have
helped some six or seven thousand Chinese undocumented immigrants
get papers so that they could stay and work in New York. Most
came from Fujian Province on the China mainland opposite Taiwan.
A belief has spread through Fujian that New York is an immigrant's
paradise. Fees paid to guide them to their "golden destination"
go from US$30,000 to US$60,000, some of that allegedly going
The government charges
that Porges made profits of $13,500,000 from his clients.
And among other things, he built two houses, one in Stamford,
Connecticut and the other in Hollywood, Florida. The government
confiscated all his liquid and fixed wealth.
Porges' wife of ten
years Sherry Lu Porges was born in China. Many clients claimed
she was the brains of the operation in good part because of
her ability to speak Mandarin. But while reactions were mixed,
some onlookers including former clients, wept when the Porges
and the other lawyers were led out by the police. The building
is now shut down and special permission is required from clients
to get in and retrieve needed papers. Prosecutor White said
this was the first time the government used the racketeering
law in an immigration case. The Sing Tao Daily used an old
Chinese saying to describe the tight secrecy involved in the
arrest operation, "to kill the chicken in order to scare the
New California Media
Online, 27 september 2000
Lawyer Indicted for Role in Chinese Smuggling Ring
A New York lawyer who
ran one of the nation's biggest immigration law firms with
a focus on asylum was charged last week with assisting Chinese
smugglers bring people into the US illegally.
According to prosecutors,
Robert Porges made more than $13 million over the last seven
years. Porges, his wife, the firm's office manager and four
paralegals have been charged with fraud. According to prosecutors,
the firm advised smugglers on how to avoid detection, and
had an arrangement with smugglers to represent smuggled aliens
if they were discovered. It would create fraudulent asylum
applications for the aliens. Once the alien obtained asylum,
the firm would return them to the smugglers who would hold
them until the smuggling fee, often as high as $50,000 was
paid. It is not known how many grants of asylum were thus
obtained, but the INS will review as many as 7,000 application
filed by the firm.
Officials are pointing
to this case as a demonstration of the growing sophistication
of smuggling rings. Porges could face up to 175 years in prison,
and fines in the millions of dollars. While he was a graduate
of the Harvard Law School, he was not a member of the American
Immigration Lawyers Association.
All of those involved have pled not guilty.
by Alisa Solomon
Arrest of an Immigration Lawyer Charged With Smuggling
Turns Up the Heat on the INS
Published in the
Village Voice, October 11 - 17, 2000
Robert Porges (left) leaves federal court with his
lawyer after being arraigned on racketeering charges.
(photo: Frances M. Roberts)
nearly eight months in the custody of the Immigration
and Naturalization Service, two teenage brothers,
Jiang Jian Wei and Jiang Jian Zhen, were reunited
with their mother, Chen Mei Xiu, on September 28,
when her plea for political asylum was granted by
a New York immigration judge. The boys had been held
at a juvenile facility in Miami; their mother endured
the INS's windowless Wackenhut detention center in
The decision came
just in time, say immigrant advocates, attorneys,
and leaders in the Chinese American community. Only
a week before, a 44-count indictment had been served
against immigration attorney Robert E. Porges and
seven associates, charging them with helping smugglers
bring Chinese immigrants illegally into the U.S.ºand
already, the activists say, asylum claims by undocumented
Chinese are being met with increased scrutiny. The
arrest has "definitely produced a chilling effect,"
notes Wendy Tso, the attorney for Chen and her two
boys. "Now there will be more cynicism about Chinese
cases. That's unfortunate. Many have been harmed,
and that's why they're here."
Indeed, the arrest
of Porges, his wife, Sheery Lu Porges, and six employees
of the Porges Law Firm has already reheated the immigration
debate, which has lain dormant for much of the presidential
campaign. A series of factorsºthe two leading candidates'
trying to woo Latino voters, demands from business
for larger labor pools, the AFL-CIO's support for
amnesty for undocumented workers, and a growing admission
among some members of Congress that the harsh and
inflexible 1996 immigration laws went too farºhas
cooled the anti-immigrant fervor of the mid '90s.
The Porges indictment,
however, has given the fortress-minded Federation
for American Immigration Reform a way to try to rekindle
the hostility. Only days after federal agents seized
more than 500 boxes of files from Porges's office
on lower Broadway, as well as some $600,000 in cash
from his 17-room Connecticut home, and another $1.6
million from a safe-deposit box, FAIR blamed asylum
policy for breeding the sort of fraud Porges and company
are alleged to have committed. Specifically, FAIR
points to a provision of the 1996 Immigration Act
that recognizes opposition to China's one-child-per-family
policy as grounds for political asylum, and calls
for its reversal.
But this provision
of U.S. asylum policy is hardly the issue, say immigrant
advocates, noting that the smugglers Chinese refer
to as snakeheads carry immigrants into countries throughout
the West, regardless of their asylum laws, and that
the INS itself has long sought to narrow the application
of the one-child claim. According to one attorney
who recently quit his job as an INS asylum officer,
the agency often argues in cases like Chen's that
evidence of forced sterilization should not support
the applicant's claim of asylum. Where's the fear
of persecution, the INS wants to know: The damage
has already been done.
like these, immigrant advocates argue, exacerbated
by incompetence, lack of oversight, and the INS's
having to enforce rigid, self-contradictory laws devised
by a grandstanding Congress, that make it easy for
unscrupulous lawyers to take advantage of vulnerable
people. At the same time, under the draconian 1996
laws, the number of detainees in INS custody has skyrocketed
in the last five years, from 6700 immigrants on an
average day to more than 20,000 now, overwhelming
an already understaffed and inadequate system. The
result, critics say, is an endless series of outrages.
David Beebe, the
district director of the INS in Portland, Oregon,
for example, abruptly announced his retirement last
month, amid mounting criticism of his overly strict
and often downright cruel application of the law,
which gave the city the nickname Deportland. In the
two most recent affronts under Beebe's watch, which
intensified calls for his removal, a woman married
to a U.S. citizen, and nursing her 13-month-old daughter,
was handcuffed, shackled, strip-searched, and jailed
before being deported to her native Germanyºwithout
her babyºbecause her visa wasn't in order. And a Chinese
businesswoman who entered the country legally was
strip-searched and jailed for two nights in August,
after which she filed a $500,000 claim against the
INS in federal court.
agency's Krome detention center in Miami has been
under investigation by the U.S. attorney general,
the Office of the Inspector General, and the FBI since
May, when female detainees began to come forward with
allegations that guards were pressuring them to have
sex, and a transsexual asylum seeker there charged
an officer with rape. So while immigrant advocates
can suggest many ways in which the INS might monitor
suspicious attorneys and step in to prevent exploitation,
they don't expect much action soon from the beleaguered
agency, which doesn't seem to be able to control even
its own employees.
One such advocate,
Christina Kleiser, a supervising attorney with the
Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, offers regular
know-your-rights assistance to detainees at the juvenile
facility in Miami where the Jiang boys were held.
The Chinese kids, she says, typically think they have
a private attorney who will also handle court proceedingsºand
often it has been Porges. The immigrants frequently
show up for their hearings only to find that their
long-distance lawyer has not filed the required papers,
she reports, and the detainee languishes through one
continuance after another over some months, and finally
gets deported. "It seems as if the judge ought to
have a duty to make a phone call to the bar or somewhere
if the lawyer isn't even making a minimal effort,"
she says. The Justice Department's Executive Office
for Immigration Review does have some guidelines for
attorney conduct that immigration judges can enforce;
Kleiser has never known it to happen.
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 seenºINS 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
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
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
"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 lifeºwhether in purely
economic terms, or in terms U.S. law recognizes as
deserving of political asylumºwill 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.
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
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
Outlines Case Against Porges
BY MARK HAMBLETT
New York Law Journal
Wednesday, September 27, 2000
CASE AGAINST immigration lawyer Robert Porges, who is charged
with aiding smugglers in illegally bringing Chinese aliens
into the country, will be based on surveillance, mountains
of documents seized from his law firm and the testimony of
alleged smugglers who have become government witnesses.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Biben told Southern District Judge Denise
Cote on Monday that the government's case also will depend
on the files of eight different aliens to support the charge
that Mr. Porges, 62, and his accomplices conspired to commit
serial asylum fraud by falsifying documents.
assistance of smugglers who were arrested in the long-running
investigation, Mr. Biben said, will be an important part of
the proof in the most explosive charge in the 44-count indictment
unsealed last week: that the Porges firm helped smugglers,
known as "snakeheads," in taking some aliens hostage to ensure
the payment of a $40,000 to $50,000 passage fee to the United
to the smuggling and hostage taking, we will rely on cooperating
witnesses º from smugglers who were co-conspirators to aliens
who were smuggled," Mr. Biben said. He added that there was
"an ongoing undercover operation in which tapes were made,"
in addition to "physical surveillance," and "substantial documentary
addition, Mr. Porges, his wife Sheery Lu Porges and two others
charged in the case gave post-arrest statements to investigators.
500 boxes of documents were seized from Mr. Porges's offices
on the day of his arrest last week. Mr. Biben also said that
"between $500,000 and $600,000 in cash" was found at the Porgeses'
Stamford, Conn., home, and another $1.6 million was seized
from a safe deposit box.
Porges, 47, whom prosecutors called the "chief of staff" at
the law firm, was still seeking release from custody yesterday,
with several friends and former clients coming forward to
pledge their homes as security. She is accused of aiding the
kidnapping of 17 aliens since 1997.
is a loving wife and mother," defense attorney Nicholas G.
Kaizer told Judge Cote. "She plans to fight these charges."
Mr. Porges is not accused of assisting in the kidnappings,
his case is unique because it is the first time a lawyer has
been charged with racketeering in connection with immigration
fraud. It is also the first time members of a law firm have
been accused of actually participating in the smuggling of
aliens and subsequent hostage-taking.
the case is also noteworthy because of its scale: the Porges
firm is accused of earning more than $13 million by falsifying
at least 6,000 asylum applications over the past seven years.
Five other people, including paralegals at the Porges firm,
were also charged.
the allegations were greeted with a shrug by one veteran immigration
lawyer who pointed to the Golden Venture incident. The Golden
Venture was a freighter that became stranded on a sand bar
just a few miles from New York City in 1993. Mr. Porges represented
the lion's share of the 286 illegal Chinese immigrants found
trapped aboard the Golden Venture.
was absolutely no surprise to anyone who works in this area
of immigration law," said the lawyer, who declined to be identified.
"When there are almost 300 people on the ship, and [Mr. Porges]
represents 250 of them, well, they didn't all look on the
same page in the Yellow Pages."
D. Mehta, chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Nationality
Law of the Association of the Bar of the City New York, declined
to address specific allegations against Mr. Porges, whom he
said was not particularly visible in the immigration bar.
Mr. Mehta said he believed that the problem of lawyers filing
unfounded asylum claims "is certainly not widespread among
established lawyers and law firms."
Coven of Bretz & Coven, who has been representing Chinese
immigrants for 35 years, said that one common scenario is
for a smuggled alien to head immediately to a travel agency
in Chinatown. The travel agency will assist the alien in assembling
his "story" for the asylum application º the kind of coaching
that the Porges firm is accused of º and then contact a lawyer.
These attorneys, known in the trade as "$100-a-day a lawyers,"
will meet the alien only briefly before a court appearance.
the quality of representation by the lawyers referred by travel
agencies defies description," Mr. Coven said. "It's terrible."
there are two things about the government's case against Porges
that strike Mr. Coven as wrong.
Porges is accused of arranging bail for smuggled aliens and
then having someone in his firm, such as Mrs. Porges, tell
the snakeheads where the alien could be found after his release.
The snakeheads, it is alleged, would then take the aliens
hostage and keep them in servitude until the passage is paid.
you speak to 95 percent of the people who are smuggled in,
they are not forced to work º they work to send money back
home," Mr. Coven said. "That business about people being slaves
or being farmed out to restaurants, that's just the spin the
government would like to put on all the cases."
allegations also appear to run contrary to a case that Mr.
Porges handled in Seattle. In 1995, he represented a 16-year-old
Chinese girl who had been kidnapped by smugglers from a foster
home in Washington State. Mr. Porges said that he knew of
two other teenagers who were abducted from foster homes, and
he passed that information on to law enforcement officials.
has assisted the F.B.I. in several investigations," Mr. Kaizer,
the defense lawyer, said yesterday.
Coven also said that there should be no negative connotation
attached to the allegation that Mr. Porges arranged for the
travel of aliens back to New York following their release.
said further that prosecutors should consider that it is hard
sometimes for a lawyer to know that a person purporting to
be a relative showing up at a bail hearing may actually be
a snakehead intent on collecting the passage fee.
anyone who gets someone out of custody helps with travel,"
he said. "And a smuggler doesn't carry a sign on the front
of his shirt that says 'snakehead.' "
Coven, who represents a dozen aliens who are former clients
of Mr. Porges, said that in his experience, the Porges firm
did "a better job" than most in handling immigration matters.
the lawyer whose suspicions were raised by the ability of
Mr. Porges to attract clientele from the Golden Venture said,
"He had quality lawyers working for him º and they didn't
do a bad job in court."
Lawyer Robert Porges
(Photo by David Schaer)
Newsday.com © 2002, Newsday, Inc.
The National Law Journal
York's Chinese community they're called "snakeheads"
-- smugglers who run the lucrative and dangerous underground
trafficking in human beings. And, as in any business, the
snakeheads need lawyers.
As a result, say a wide variety of sources, a group of attorneys
plays a dual role. Although they nominally represent illegal
immigrants who are caught and face deportation, they actually
defend the interests of the smugglers, who pay their fees.
The snakeheads' interests are in getting the immigrants out
of custody quickly, so they can collect a fee of up to $80,000
per person, say the sources, who include immigrants' advocates,
lawyers, social workers, academics and an investigator for
the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
"The snakeheads really need that service," says
Peter Kwong, a professor of urban planning and Asian-American
studies at Hunter College in New York who wrote "Forbidden
Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor."
"The biggest risk to their cargoes are basically that
they're being arrested, so the lawyers have to intervene."
The experts, backed by court records, paint a picture of a
smuggling process that exploits thousands of people brought
to this country to work in what amounts to indentured servitude.
The smuggler lawyers, they say, play an intrinsic role.
"There's no one who goes through smuggling without knowing
what kind of legal services the smugglers offer," Kwong
says. "That's part of the reputation of the snakehead."
Spotlighting the problem earlier this year was the conviction
of lawyer Robert Porges, who operated an immigration firm
in Manhattan. A 90-count federal indictment said that he was
deeply involved in smuggling.
Though the extent of Porges' involvement with the snakeheads
was unusual, the experts say, he was one of many lawyers who
illegally and unethically earn a living off the trade. Despite
the likelihood that business will go on as usual, none of
several agencies that might address the activities of these
lawyers has given it high priority.
The smugglers usually bring their "clients" across
U.S. borders in groups of 10 to 300 by air, boat or land,
according to Anthony Scandiffio, an INS investigator who testified
in the trial of a Porges Law Firm employee.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 30,000 to 40,000
Chinese immigrants come to the United States every year. Virtually
all have paid smugglers to be brought here. The Chinese smuggling
is part of a worldwide trafficking in people that the State
Department, which maintains a Web site on the subject, said
a year ago was commonly estimated to be a $7 billion-a-year
Immigrants typically pay the snakeheads' fee through loans
their families get from underground banks often run by snakeheads.
They are expected to repay them by working in restaurants
and sweatshops. Paying the debt can take 12 hours a day, six
days a week, for five years. Women reportedly are increasingly
being sold into marriage to men willing to pay part or all
of their debt.
Many of those smuggled here expect to be caught -- and many
are -- so the illegal immigrants sometimes memorize the phone
numbers of the lawyers who'll represent them. In other cases,
the smugglers initiate the legal proceedings.
"Typically," Scandiffio testified, "what you
will see with the agents is a smuggler who will bring lists
of names of their aliens. It could be, if it is a boat, it
could be anywhere from as small as 10 to maybe 100 aliens
that they will be responsible for getting out of INS custody.
Then that particular law firm will represent each one of those
aliens on behalf of the smuggler."
The lawyer usually also contacts the detainee's family in
the United States, if there is one, to ask for documents that
could help with a bond request -- and money in addition to
what the smuggler has provided.
But, the experts say, the goal of the smugglers' lawyers is
only to get the immigrant released so the smuggler can be
paid. So they often do the following :
- Concoct asylum claims out of whole cloth.
- Fail to investigate whether clients might actually
have legitimate claims.
- Abandon cases or do a sloppy job handling them.
The same lawyer often represents all of
the immigrants who have come over on the same ship or have
been stopped at the same point on the border.
"If a ship is busted in Savannah, the same one does all
those cases, and it's 75 cases," says Atlanta immigration
lawyer Charles Kuck. "What -- all the families got together
to hire the same one? It just doesn't work that way,"
Clients often are unaware that they have lawyers, advocates
say. Holly Cooper of the Florence Immigrant Rights Project
in Arizona, who represents children in INS custody, says that
New York lawyers sometimes file notices of representation
on behalf of Chinese children in custody in her state.
"I don't have any concrete evidence that it's smugglers,"
she says, but she adds: "The kid would turn to me and
say, "I'm unaware that I have an attorney." How
can a kid have an attorney-client relationship if he's never
spoken to the attorney and doesn't know about the existence
of the attorney?"
If a family member -- real or concocted -- can be found to
sponsor the alien, the chances of release are high. Once the
immigrant is released, the smuggler gets his fee and the immigrant
can start work in a restaurant or sweatshop to send money
home for repayment.
The lawyers, paid by smugglers only for the start of the case,
often stop working on it after that, unless the family or
immigrant has more money. Shoddy legal work can still make
the high fees worthwhile because the immigrants, in seeking
asylum, could spend longer in court than the three to five
years needed to work off the debt.
Even if they are eventually ordered deported, few illegals
leave. A 1996 report by the Department of Justice's Office
of Inspector General says that only about 11 percent of nondetained
aliens who were ordered deported actually left the country.
The government lacked the resources to pursue the rest, the
Snakehead lawyers' work isn't limited to Chinese immigrants.
Lawyers and social service workers see it with South and Southeast
Asian immigrants as well, particularly with Indians, Pakistanis
and Sri Lankans. But the Chinese population is by far the
biggest. Chinese aliens seeking asylum last year ranked second
by nationality after Mexicans, according to the Justice Department's
Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The majority of Chinese come from Fujian province, one of
the poorest. The Fujianese speak their own dialect and are
often marginalized by other Chinese. Some come with their
eyes open, others after being misled about the dangers of
the trip and their living conditions here.
Lawyers working with snakeheads commit the crime of conspiring
to smuggle aliens. They also violate professional rules of
conduct on conflicts of interest and their duty of representation.
Robert Hirshon, president of the American Bar Association,
addressed the problem in June in a speech at an immigration
"The ABA," he said, "is acutely aware of the
plight of children ensnared by smuggling or trafficking operations
that may include legal representation that has been arranged
by the smuggler. Immigration judges should inquire into the
child's free consent to and understanding of this representation
and its scope, since the child is the client with the ultimate
right to hire and fire counsel at will."
But the role of the snakehead attorneys is often difficult
to prove. The Porges case stands out in that respect.
THE PORGES CASE
Porges, 64, a Harvard law graduate, was charged
along with his wife, Sheery Lu Porges, 49, in September 2000
with alien smuggling, fraud and kidnapping. They were part
of an operation that included holding people hostage until
their smuggling fees were paid, the government said.
It accused the Porgeses of filing 6,000 or more false asylum
applications and filing false affidavits naming relatives
of immigrants to get them out of detention.
Since 1993, authorities said, the Porgeses had made $13.5
million from their racketeering.
In February, the Porgeses pleaded guilty to racketeering,
conspiracy and tax fraud. They are expected to be sentenced
to six to eight years in August.
In her plea, Sheery Lu Porges described how the firm was involved
in the smuggling. As the INS' Scandiffio testified, a snakehead
would provide her with a list of aliens who were being smuggled
into the United States. She would check them against lists
of INS detainees, and the law firm would be hired for their
In one instance, four immigrants were arrested in Arizona
and released on false claims filed by Porges, she said. Porges'
daughter picked them up at the jail, drove them to the airport
and gave them airline tickets. Sherry Lu Porges contacted
the smugglers with their flight information.
The aliens were met by the smugglers at the airport and then
held hostage at gunpoint and beaten until the smugglers received
the balance of the fee, according to testimony in the trial
of Shao Hao Zhen, one of 14 Porges firm employees charged
along with the couple. Convicted of alien smuggling and conspiracy,
Zhen is to be sentenced Friday.
Smugglers also sometimes are linked to unethical
attorneys at "travel agencies," businesses that
offer Chinese immigrants job placement and legal services.
Sometimes these services are fronted by lawyers, like Joseph
Muto, who was recently disbarred in New York for his involvement
with them. Among his numerous ethics violations were accepting
client referrals from nonlawyers and relying on nonlawyers
he did not supervise to perform legal work, such as consulting
with the client. Also, in most cases he undertook representation
without meeting with or discussing the case with the clients,
it was found. While some "travel agencies" employ
lawyers to front for them, others simply practice law without
licenses or find down-on-their-luck immigration solos when
Matt Hayes, who worked as an immigration lawyer in New York
for five years until two years ago, says the agencies were
conspicuous at the Federal Plaza courthouse in New York.
Hayes says he was often approached by "travel agency"
employees who would ask him to make an appearance on behalf
of their clients.
"They'd say, "Will you go in and get an adjournment
for me right now?" And they'd have cash right there,"
Immigrant advocates complain about other actions by snakehead
lawyers. The Florence project's Cooper says she became suspicious
about the inaction of a lawyer in one case, looked up his
New York bar number and called his office. "He had no
idea what I was talking about," she says. "He claimed
he didn't know anything about the case."
Pro bono and public interest lawyers say that the boilerplate
asylum claims put forth by shady practitioners make it hard
to win legitimate cases.
Latham & Watkins lawyer Melissa Pifko took over a Chinese
juvenile's case she suspected had been handled by a snakehead
lawyer after a social worker told a nonprofit law office that
it had been poorly handled.
"The lawyer put generic things in his application, like
a fear of persecution," says Pifko. "Things that
you could put for any person. And she didn't have any affidavits
from him attached."
In fact, she says, the youth had a legitimate claim: that
his family was persecuted for violating China's family planning
Even after the snakeheads have left the picture, lawyers remaining
as retained counsel sometimes badger and mistreat their paying
clients, according to one prominent member of the Chinese
"They are illegal, so they must go to the lawyer,"
says the Rev. Matthew Ding, senior pastor at The Church of
Grace to Fujianese in New York. "The lawyers request
money all the time and scold them. They ask for a lot of fees,
and they withhold records if they go to another attorney.
So they go to work in the restaurant 12 hours a day to feed
the lawyer instead of the debt."
The situation leaves some immigrants' advocates wondering
how much they have accomplished.
"Ultimately, I question whether I did any good, because
even the cases where our clients won asylum, they were probably
forced into an indentured-servitude situation," says
Blanche Maine, a San Diego immigration attorney who used to
work for a nonprofit legal office. "I wonder whether
these people ended up worse off here in the United States
than in China."
Bar and law enforcement authorities have not tackled snakehead
Disciplinary systems are focused on state law, so it's not
always easy to track down and punish immigration lawyers who
are practicing federal law in administrative courts. Attorneys
who practice immigration law need to be licensed in only one
state to practice in any court. And disciplinary systems are
slow-moving. Porges pleaded guilty on Feb. 11, but New York
didn't disbar him until July 2.
The New York disciplinary chief counsel, Thomas Cahill, refused
to answer questions about Porges or snakehead lawyers, citing
judiciary law which requires his office to keep disciplinary
matters confidential until final adjudication.
Russell Weiner, deputy chief trial counsel at the State Bar
of California, says the Bar is concerned about lawyers working
with smugglers but has received few complaints.
"One of the challenges with these cases is that the clients
don't speak English very well," he says. "They're
afraid to come forward. And then they're unavailable to be
a witness" if they're deported.
The INS' Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), the
immigration court, has taken some actions through its own
disciplinary system. But its punishment power is limited to
disbarment from immigration court and has been largely a result
of prior action by states.
"Unfortunately, we don't have the breadth of the disciplinary
systems," says Jennifer Barnes, assistant general counsel
working on disciplinary issues. For example, she says, neglect
and abandonment of a case aren't grounds for INS disbarment.
"There are a lot of complaints that come to us where
we don't have a ground to hang it on," she says.
About snakehead lawyers she says, "I think it's more
of an INS, law enforcement issue, as opposed to an EOIR issue,
where we're the adjudicators of these issues."
The INS says lawyers aren't generally its responsibility.
"We have a limited budget and resources, so we go after
the smuggling outfits as a whole," says Bill Strausberger,
a spokesman for the INS. "As far as the lawyers, I think
you should talk to EOIR. EOIR's responsible for disciplining
Daniel Molerio, assistant district director for INS investigations
in New York, says that smuggling investigations are pending
that could include lawyers, but that they are not a priority.
"These cases are very time-consuming, difficult to investigate,
very complex," he says, "and we have been inundated
with counterterrorism efforts from Sept. 11 to today, and
we have a very limited staff."
EOIR refused to permit immigration judges to talk
to the NLJ, but lawyers say that some judges, clearly frustrated
with snakehead attorneys, have taken matters into their own
Ted Cox, a New York immigration solo, says that New York immigration
Judge Jeffrey Chase probes to find out if lawyers representing
Chinese aliens are connected to smugglers or travel agencies.
He "specifically grills every Chinese asylum applicant,
how they got that attorney, how much they pay and if they
have a travel agent," Cox says.
Judge Dana Marks Keener, president of the National Association
of Immigration Judges, says in an interview that one useful
tool would be contempt power. Immigration judges could fine
lawyers who abandoned cases or didn't follow up, making them
less lucrative for snakehead lawyers.
"Rather than having cases come back on incompetent-counsel
claims, which is cumbersome to the litigants and the courts,
contempt powers allow the blame, as it were, to be placed
squarely when the judge believes the litigant is performing
properly," she says.
In fact, immigration judges were given the power to hold in
contempt attorneys in their courtroom by legislation in 1996.
But the Department of Justice has never formulated a regulation
to let them use it. That's because the INS doesn't want government
lawyers subject to contempt findings, Chief Immigration Judge
Michael Creppy said in a footnote to a 1999 paper.
The immigration court's Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA)
is considering taking away one form of relief for the victims
of snakehead lawyers. A proposal would eliminate it as a ground
for reopening a case. The American Immigration Law Foundation
is briefing the BIA in favor of keeping the claim, but the
INS favors abolishing it.
Ex-immigration attorney Hayes suggests that the best way to
deal with shady practitioners is to treat immigration cases
like contingency or matrimonial cases. Immigration attorneys
would have to file a retainer statement, a closing statement
accounting for the fee, the identities of the parties to whom
disbursements were made and the payment dates.
"If he files one false retainer statement, take that
lawyer out of circulation," says Hayes.
Page printed from: http://www.law.com
Manhattan attorney Robert Porges, pleads guilty
to kidnapping and smuggling Chinese nationals into
the United States.
York Law Journal
February 13, 2002
Manhattan attorney Robert Porges built the largest political
asylum practice in the United States because his clients had
nowhere else to turn - literally.
Many of the thousands of clients who turned to Mr. Porges
for help in entering the United States from the People's Republic
of China found that the attorney was part of the problem:
he was a key player in a brutal conspiracy to kidnap them
and hold them hostage until they paid their way free.
Guilty pleas entered Monday by Mr. Porges - and his co-defendant,
wife and law firm manager, Sheery Lu Porges - detailed a predatory
conspiracy with Chinese alien smugglers known as "snakeheads,"
who held aliens hostage until their passage fees, and the
fees of the Porges firm, were paid.
Ms. Porges admitted she helped smugglers route into the United
States illegal aliens who would carry only one phone number,
that of the Porges law firm. Then Mr. Porges would win their
release before a hearing officer. Ms. Porges would then alert
the smugglers as to the aliens' whereabouts so that the smugglers
could collect the remainder of the passage fee sometimes by
force, often through kidnapping. The fees could run as high
as $50,000 per person.
But that conspiracy began to unravel, prosecutors say, when
arrested smugglers began cooperating with the government and
pointed the finger at the Porges firm, which allegedly earned
as much as $13 million from the scheme, dating back to 1993.
On Monday, before Southern District Judge Denise Cote, Mr.
Porges also admitted to running a virtual asylum fraud factory
out of his offices at 401 Broadway, employing legal assistants
and paralegals to draft phony claims of political persecution
in China. Although the couple, as part of their plea agreements,
stipulated that the firm filed well over 1,000 fraudulent
asylum applications, the government believes that the total
number of cases affected by the conspiracy may be as high
Both Mr. Porges, a 63-year-old Harvard Law School graduate,
and his 49-year-old wife, who is now pregnant with twins,
face between 78 and 97 months in prison when they are sentenced
by Judge Cote on May 17.
The pair pleaded guilty to three counts - racketeering, racketeering
conspiracy and income tax fraud - out of a massive, 90-count
indictment that included charges such as "conspiracy
to commit hostage taking." Ms. Porges, the law firm's
chief of staff, was accused in the indictment of directly
participating in the seizure of 17 hostages.
Under the terms of a plea agreement reached with the government
on Feb. 1, the couple have agreed to forfeit $6 million in
assets, including their spacious Stamford, Conn. home and
more than $2 million in cash seized from safe deposit boxes
and bank accounts by investigators.
Inside the Conspiracy.
A glimpse into the workings of the conspiracy was provided
in an Alexandria, Va., federal courtroom in November, when
34-year-old Mark Kuang was sentenced to 9 years in prison
for his role as a liaison between the smugglers and the Porges
Mr. Kuang, who cooperated with the government, admitted helping
smuggle more than 100 aliens into the United States, where
the majority retained the Porges law firm to process their
asylum applications. Some of those aliens were held hostage
in Virginia until they paid their passage fees to the smugglers.
The Southern District indictment charging Mr. and Ms. Porges
and several of their employees in the conspiracy refers to
unindicted co-conspirators, some of whom assisted the government
with an investigation that also included physical surveillance
and, ultimately, the review of a huge number of documents
seized from the law firm. The investigation also included
a sting operation in which applicants who were sent to the
firm to apply for asylum implicated Mr. Porges and some of
Accompanied by defense attorney Larry Bronson, Mr. Porges
told Judge Cote that he "personally approved" every
asylum application handled by his office, including "stories"
of false persecution at the hands of the Chinese government.
"In effect, I closed my eyes to what I knew was the deliberate
falsification of stories by law firm staff and aliens,"
he said. "Many stories had a basis in fact; however,
false elements were added to improve the applicant's chance
Mr. Porges also detailed how he and his wife ran the law firm
and a company called Transpacific Consulting to avoid paying
taxes. They paid employees in cash, he said, and filed several
false documents with the Internal Revenue Service.
Ms. Porges, with defense attorney Richard Ware Levitt by her
side, gave a rendering of the couple's relationship with the
smugglers, including specific arrangements to ensure the collection
of fees from the aliens.
Ms. Porges would maintain lists of aliens detained by the
U.S. government and match those lists against aliens transported
by the smugglers. Once Robert Porges would secure the release
of the alien on bond, she said, "my husband . . . would
pick them up at a detention facility, drive them to the airport
and give them an airline ticket."
Aliens Taken Hostage
Ms. Porges would then contact the smuggler by beeper and provide
the alien's flight number. The alien would then be met at
the airport and taken hostage until the smugglers had been
paid and the several thousand dollars in legal fees owed the
Porges firm had been collected.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew
L. Biben, Jason M. Weinstein, Jonathan S. Abernethy and Serene
Of the 14 former employees of Mr. Porges' firm who were charged
in the case, 10 have pleaded guilty to racketeering, alien
smuggling or asylum fraud charges. One remains a fugitive.
Date Received: February 11, 2002.
for Roles in Smuggling
A former lawyer, who prosecutors say aided
Chinese immigrant smuggling gangs, was sentenced to eight
years in jail along with his wife, who recently gave birth
to premature twin girls.
The wife, Sheery Lu Porges, 49, had begged for a delay in
serving the sentence so that she could continue to breastfeed
her daughters, who were born two months premature in June.
But Manhattan Federal Court Judge Denise Cote ordered Porges
and her husband, Robert Porges, 64, to begin serving their
Cote did, however, order that prosecutors provide Sheery Porges
with a breast pump to use in jail so that the infants could
be fed with her breast milk. Porges’ lawyer said that
friends and relatives will take care of the infants until
their parents are released.
The couple had earlier pleaded guilty to racketeering and
tax fraud. They admitted getting thousands of Chinese illegal
immigrants out of INS jails with false political-asylum claims.
The Porgeses said they also helped the “snakehead”
gangsters locate the aliens after they were released so the
smugglers could collect up to $40,000 in smuggling fees from
Robert Porges, a former attorney, represented thousands of
illegal immigrants, including the stowaways from the notorious
Golden Venture, a rusting freighter that ran aground off Queens
in 1993. His wife admitted to serving as the main contact
between the gangs and her husband.
The couple raked in $13.5 million from the gangs for their
services over a seven-year period, prosecutors said. As part
of their plea deal, the Porgeses agreed to forfeit $6 million
in assets, including an estate in Connecticut and $2.1 million
in cash that authorities seized when they were arrested two
years ago. The couple received the maximum sentence under
Heather Harlan, special to AsianWeek 2002
wife admit alien smuggling scheme
By LARRY NEUMEISTER
NEW YORK (AP) -- The head of one of the
nation's largest immigration asylum law firms and his wife
pleaded guilty Monday to faking asylum applications to help
smugglers bring hundreds of Chinese into America.
Robert Porges, 63, said he ``personally approved every asylum
application'' as he admitted to a conspiracy in which the
Porges Law Firm lied to help more than 1,000 immigrants stay
in the United States.
``I was aware that many of the stories submitted by the aliens
were either false, inaccurate or exaggerations,'' he said.
``I deliberately did not investigate.''
His description of his crimes before U.S. District Judge Denise
Cote was followed by a confession by his wife, Sheery Lu Porges,
She described helping smugglers in the kidnappings of 17 Chinese
immigrants since 1997 by telling them where they could find
clients of the law firm who promised to pay a fee to come
In return, the smugglers would ensure a steady stream of business
from immigrants seeking asylum in the United States, she said.
The immigrants, who otherwise could not legally enter the
United States, agreed to pay between $40,000 and $50,000 to
be brought to America. The smugglers were sent to collect
the fee after learning flight plans from the law firm, Sheery
Lu Porges said.
She said the law firm also advised what routes should be used
to smuggle people into the United States.
The couple entered guilty pleas to racketeering and tax evasion
charges under agreements that called for each of them to serve
at least six years and two months in prison. Sentencing was
set for May 17.
Sheery Lu Porges is pregnant with twins due in August, and
a lawyer for her said she would seek to avoid incarceration
until the children are born.
U.S. Attorney James Comey said the prosecution of the couple
demonstrated that immigrant smuggling had become a major focus
of law enforcement.
``With our nation now at war against terrorism, it has become
an even more critical concern,'' he said.
Larry Bronson, a lawyer for Robert Porges, said his client
decided to plead guilty rather than endure a trial after prosecutors
offered deals to about 10 of the law firm's employees and
He said the deals created a mountain of evidence that "just
by the sheer weight would have made a defense impossible."
Bronson said his client was unjustly singled out for a practice
that was so common that advertisements in Chinese newspapers
coaxed prospective immigrants to contact law firms to perfect
their asylum applications.
``It's a sad case because he's a lawyer, 63 years old, and
he's going to jail for conduct which is conducted every day
by people in this business,'' Bronson said.
As part of their plea, the couple agreed to forfeit $6 million,
including their Stamford, Conn., home and $2.1 million in
cash seized from the home and two safe deposit boxes after
Bronson said the firm that had been operated by the couple
would continue in business, though the couple would no longer
be involved. The firm had represented immigrants nationwide.
Fourteen former Porges employees were charged with racketeering,
alien smuggling or asylum fraud. Ten have pleaded guilty;
one remains a fugitive.
The fraud was forcing the government to review as many as
7,000 asylum cases.
get 8 years in Illegal Alien smuggling scheme
August 9, 2002
NEW YORK (AP) The head of one of the nation's largest immigration
asylum law firms and his wife were each sentenced Friday to
eight years in prison in a massive scheme to smuggle Chinese
U.S. District Judge Denis Cote gave Robert Porges, 63, and
his wife, Sherry Lu Porges, 49, the maximum term allowed under
Prosecutors alleged the couple worked closely with ruthless
smugglers known as ''snakeheads.'' The smugglers preyed on
immigrants who agreed to pay them between $40,000 and $50,000
to be brought to America illegally.
The Porges Law Firm would draw up phony asylum applications
to win the release of aliens should they be arrested and detained
by immigration officials, prosecutors said. That allowed the
smugglers to collect the smuggling fees, at times by holding
the aliens hostage until they received cash from relatives
back in China.
snip Robert Porges admitted his firm drew up phony
asylum applications to help more than 1,000 immigrants stay
in the United States. He told Cote at the time that he ''was
aware that many of the stories submitted by the aliens were
either false, inaccurate or exaggerations.''
Fourteen former Porges employees were charged with racketeering,
alien smuggling or asylum fraud. Twelve have pleaded guilty;
one remains a fugitive.
The fraud has forced the government to review as many as 7,000