This Dec. 19, 2012 story from The China Press, about the fallout from the arrest of 26 immigration lawyers in Chinatown, won first prize in the 2013 Ippies Journalism Awards for best investigative or in-depth story.
On December 18 at around 11:30 in the morning, a joint operation involving the New York Police Department (NYPD), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) led to the arrest of immigration lawyer Feng Ling Liu and a number of others working in immigration law offices.
Beginning at around 11 a.m., FBI personnel and dozens of other federal investigators flooded into the corridors and entered the offices of the law firm located on the sixth floor at 2 East Broadway in Chinatown, arresting Feng Ling Liu’s husband Yu Chang Miao and many others listed in a warrant.
The raid at the East Broadway firm was only part of the operation, which included dozens of offices throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Warrants for the raids included the names of 26 immigration lawyers, 22 of which were ethnic Chinese. At the closing of the edition, 21 arrests had been made, with arraignments scheduled for the evenings of the December 18 and 19 in the Manhattan Federal Court.
According to immigration lawyers within the Chinatown community, Liu and her husband Miao are well known for handling thousands of asylum cases throughout the city. Their offices on East Broadway employ around 10 paralegals, and even with their popularity and heavy case volume they have maintained a relatively low profile. Insiders say even with her low outside visibility, Liu, originally from Hebei Province, has maintained a strong reputation in the immigrant community over the past 10 years. Even though she speaks a limited amount of Fujianese dialect, she is widely known in the Fujian undocumented immigrant community as the lawyer that will always be successful when applying for political asylum. Liu had come under scrutiny from the FBI in the past, and although the raid came as no surprise, the magnitude of the raid was unprecedented in Chinatown.
Immigration lawyers in the community said they often felt intimidated by Liu’s success rates, and were often questioned by potential clients as to why the asylum process at their firm was so much more complicated than at Liu’s firm. At Liu’s firm, clients said, they were required to do very little, other than pay the fees, and didn’t understand why they should choose a different firm that would require much more work and “thinking” on their part. Even immigration lawyers that spoke fluent the Fujianese dialect would lose clients to Liu’s apparently easier processes. Suspicions arose that Liu was creating and rehearsing back-stories for clients to falsely petition for immigration based on political asylum, suspicions that were confirmed by the December 18 raid.
Means to an End
According to the Southern District Federal Court, Liu has been doing business out of the East Broadway location since 2007. In 2009 a boom in the amount of asylum cases the firm was handling prompted Liu to change the name of the firm to Moslemi and Associates, Inc. to escape attention already on the firm. As the number of clients steadily continued growing, Liu opened a separate firm called Bandrich and Associates at 11 East Broadway under the name of one of the lawyers she employed, Vanessa Bandrich. Bandrich and another lawyer at the firm, Feng Li, were also arrested on December 18.
When Liu opened her firm at the beginning of the 21st century, the average rate for her services was around $7,000-$8,000. As her reputation grew the prices grew, to a current average rate of $15,000, and even with the increased rate Liu maintained a steady stream of clients. Liu’s reputation for success regardless of circumstances grew through word of mouth in the Fujianese community.
The Southern District Federal Court documents say Liu used a four-step process in petitioning asylum for immigrants. The first step was to establish residency for the last year, and those applying for asylum that had been in the U.S. greater than one year were directed to get a friend residing in China to write a letter stating they physically saw the person living in China during that year.
After paying a deposit of $1,000, the second step would begin. Liu provided a fabricated back-story of political persecution in China, which the client would take home and commit to memory. The stories usually included one or more of the following claims: 1) They were forced to have an abortion in enforcement of China’s one-child policy. 2) Some form of religious persecution. 3) Persecution for affiliation with Falun Gong.
In step three, after memorizing the back-story clients would meet with assistants assigned to practice answering questions in the asylum interview process. If persecution for religion is part of the story, they would be sent to a church to get an understanding of the beliefs they would be claiming. In the final step a translator is assigned to accompany the client on the day of the interview. The translator would ensure that the client’s answers were translated without exposing any holes in the back-story. Liu’s firm was involved in over 200 known cases so far using these methods.
Around 3 p.m. on the day of the arrests, many of the arrested lawyers were in Southern District Court awaiting arraignment. Jenny, whose husband was a paralegal at one of the firms, left her job on Wall Street and rushed to the courthouse after finding out online in the Wall Street Journal that her husband had been arrested.
Exploitation Doesn’t End with Arrest
The firm remained open after Liu’s arrest and stayed full of clients that had heard of the arrests and accusations on the 18th and wanted to change firms and lawyers. They were told that Liu required a $2,000 fee to allow them to change firms. On December 21 this reporter returned to the law office of Liu on East Broadway to find it still operating and very busy. A posted announcement stated lawyers were busy resolving current open cases prioritizing depending on the court date, and not accepting new ones. They would remain open for the time being, but anticipated being closed down in the next several days. The language of the announcement seemed an attempt to calm clients, but the situation on the sixth floor seemed to be to the contrary. It was barely standing room only with the large number of clients there seeking resolution, but clients that were there with the intent to switch firms were given priority, providing they paid the $2,000 fee.
Talking with some of those present at the firm on the 21st revealed that many believed Liu did little of the actual work herself, and that aides completed most of the petitions. Most of the applicants have very limited English ability, and relied on and trusted in Liu’s guidance. Very little was explained to them when they asked questions beyond simply following Liu’s processes, and the forms and documents were not translated and explained to them.
They feel that Liu exploited their ignorance of the language and immigration laws, and even made a last ditch attempt to exploit more money from them by trying to charge a fee to change firms. Liu’s firm told them that the only way they would be allowed access to their files and materials for transfer was to pay the $2,000 fee. To add insult to injury, workers at the firm that day treated concerned customers rudely and often yelled at them to get out if they did not have a case with an urgent date.
After hearing about Liu’s actions, Chinese immigration lawyers in the community are speaking out against her. They say that asking for a fee, especially one as high as $2,000, is only taking advantage of clients ignorance of the law and legitimate requirements and processes of petitioning for asylum. When a client chooses to change lawyers or firms there should never be a fee involved, and their new lawyer can simply make a call to the previous lawyer and request all the information be faxed to them, without charge. They say that legitimate lawyers in the community understand how hard their clients work to earn a sum like $2,000, and advise them not to pay any fees for transferring service until they have consulted with their new lawyer.
[Correction: Voices of NY originally ran this story with a picture that was not related to the article. Thanks to the reader who called it to our attention. The photo has been deleted.]