Top 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 to Porges.

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 monkey."

New California Media Online, 27 september 2000

Immigration 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.

Bad Counsel
by Alisa Solomon
The 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
Attorney Robert Porges (left) leaves federal court with his lawyer after being arraigned on racketeering charges.
(photo: Frances M. Roberts)

After 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 Queens.

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.

It's attitudes 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.

Meanwhile, the 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 to know.

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 care."

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 Nations estimates.

"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.

Meanwhile, the 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 U.S.

In announcing 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 immigration policy."

Government Outlines Case Against Porges
BY MARK HAMBLETT
New York Law Journal
Wednesday, September 27, 2000

THE 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.

Assistant 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.

The 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 States.

"As 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 evidence."

In addition, Mr. Porges, his wife Sheery Lu Porges and two others charged in the case gave post-arrest statements to investigators.

Moreover, 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.

Mrs. 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.

"She is a loving wife and mother," defense attorney Nicholas G. Kaizer told Judge Cote. "She plans to fight these charges."

While 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.

But 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

"This 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."

Cyrus 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.

"But Mr. Mehta said he believed that the problem of lawyers filing unfounded asylum claims "is certainly not widespread among established lawyers and law firms."

Jules 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.

"Sometimes the quality of representation by the lawyers referred by travel agencies defies description," Mr. Coven said. "It's terrible."

But there are two things about the government's case against Porges that strike Mr. Coven as wrong.

Mr. 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.

"If 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."

The 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.

"He has assisted the F.B.I. in several investigations," Mr. Kaizer, the defense lawyer, said yesterday.

Mr. 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.

He 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.

"Basically, 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.' "

Mr. 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.

And 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
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

 

The Snakehead Lawyers
Elizabeth Amon
The National Law Journal
07-17-2002

In New 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."
CONVICTED LAWYER
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 business.
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 report said.
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.
THE LAWYERS
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 judges' conference.
"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 cases.
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.
OTHER SHOPS
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 necessary.
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," he says.
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 laws.
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 community.
"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 lawyering comprehensively.
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 lawyers."
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."
JUDGES' FRUSTRATION
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 hands.
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.

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Top Manhattan attorney Robert Porges, pleads guilty
to kidnapping and smuggling Chinese nationals into the United States.

By Mark Hamblett 

New 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 as 7,000. 
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 firm. 
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 his employees. 
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 of success." 
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 Nakano. 
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.

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Two Sentenced 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 sentences immediately.
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 each person.
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 federal guidelines.
Heather Harlan, special to AsianWeek 2002
http://www.asianweek.com/2002_08_23/news_upfront.html

Lawyer, 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, 49.
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 to America.
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 eight smugglers.
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 their arrests.
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.

Couple 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 into America.
U.S. District Judge Denis Cote gave Robert Porges, 63, and his wife, Sherry Lu Porges, 49, the maximum term allowed under sentencing guidelines.
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 asylum cases.