A Chinese bamboo farmer, whose arrest in February for killing five kangaroo rats galvanized conservatives nationwide, has been busted by the federal government again.
Taung Ming-Lin's newest run-in with the law has nothing to do with violating the federal Endangered Species Act on his 723-acre farm outside Bakersfield, which made him a cause celebre among private property rights advocates from Rush Limbaugh to Mike Huffington.
This time, the Taiwanese immigrant has aroused the long arm of the INS for allegedly employing undocumented workers from Mexico at his bookbinding shop in South El Monte.
And authorities are investigating whether Lin, his wife and three children, ages 19 to 23, are also here illegally and subject to deportation. "I have a little feeling the government is trying to pressure me," Lin said through a translator.
Last week, as Lin drove to Fresno to meet with an attorney about his upcoming trial on charges of destroying sensitive habitat, immigration agents raided his Lippo Binding shop and arrested his 22-year-old daughter and 10 workers from Mexico, Taiwan and Indonesia. The daughter, Sulin Lin, was released eight hours later from a holding facility in Downtown Los Angeles.
Lin, a small man who wears a lucky jade dragon on his belt and speaks no English, was never a likely hero. Now his plight is sure to cause heartburn in this election season for those who vilify environmental law but hold dear the notion of an inviolable border.
INS officials refused to comment on the case, saying the investigation was continuing. Daniel Rudnick, one of two attorneys representing Lin in the kangaroo rat case, called the family's immigration problems a "minor deal over paperwork." He accused the federal government of ganging up on "a new American hero, a Chinese Forrest Gump."
"The U.S. government cannot stand the fact that Mr. Lin has been lionized by the American public and talk show radio hosts," Rudnick said. "So they want to dirty him and soil him in the public eye before his trial. That's what this piling on is all about."
Lin brought his family to America in 1990, abandoning a lucrative career in Taiwan as an importer of U.S.-made products to open the bookbinding company in South El Monte, where the family lives.
He couldn't stop dreaming about the life of a farmer, he said, recalling his 84-year-old father still tilling eight acres of peanuts and rice on an island west of Taiwan.
A Monterey Park real estate agent told him about the fertile San Joaquin Valley on the other side of the Tehachapis. After a few trips, he handed over $310,000 to Tenneco Inc. for 723 acres near Interstate 5 about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
A more bereft piece of earth--tumbleweeds and snakes and salt-encrusted desert--would be hard to imagine. Neither the real estate agent nor Tenneco told Lin it would take years of irrigation to leach out the deadly salts and turn the 723 acres into marginal cropland at best, he said.
And the escrow papers never mentioned a word about the Tipton kangaroo rat and blunt-nosed leopard lizard and San Joaquin kit fox--endangered species that roamed the land.
In early February, after Lin paid $150,000 for a new well and tractor, and planted five acres of bamboo, state agents informed him that he was tilling endangered species habitat. A few days later, his farm manager proceeded to plow under another swath of scrubland.
It was then that state and federal agents swooped down on the farm, seizing the tractor and charging Lin with three violations of the Endangered Species Act. His trial is set for early December.
He has been a darling of conservative commentators ever since, an example of the federal environmental bureaucracy gone mad. Lin has been honored at tractor parades by farmers and roughnecks and sought out by politicians of all stripes.
The latest news about the raid of his bookbinding company and investigation into his immigration status does not go down easy, especially for those who have taken up his banner and that of Proposition 187, the so-called Save Our State initiative.
"This is the first I've heard of it," said E.G. Berchtold, a Kern County farmer and tractor salesman who strongly supported Lin. "Forget that you called me. Anything I say without thinking won't help the man."
Loron Hodge, head of the Kern County Farm Bureau and a member of the private property group that honored Lin at the tractor parade this summer, was also stunned.
"I don't know if we looked at him as a hero or not," he said. "He was a example of what could happen to any of us who own land. The issue doesn't change just because Mr. Lin now has these (immigration) problems."
Lin, who has invested more than $1 million in the country he wants to call home, is clearly confounded. Three weeks before the raid, he said, INS agents came to his shop demanding employee tax forms. He complied. Three of the men arrested last week weren't even his employees but drivers of another company, he said.
"I just want to run my business in America with no problems," he said.