For 12 years, Leland Sustaire was the fix-it man, a veteran U.S. immigration supervisor who accepted $500,000 in bribes from two immigration brokers to authorize green cards for South Korean immigrants throughout California.
The scheme fell apart in 1998 when a nervous Sustaire turned himself in, agreeing to wear a hidden microphone to help indict Korean American brokers John Choe and Daniel Lee. Both were convicted of fraud and bribery in 1999 and sentenced to three years in prison. For Sustaire's cooperation, prosecutors argued that the 54-year-old former official should avoid time behind bars: He was sentenced to six months in a halfway house and six months' home confinement.
But the steepest price for the scam, immigration lawyers say, is being paid by the 275 green card recipients. Many are established professionals -- scientists, doctors, ministers, Silicon Valley software engineers and business owners -- who insist that they had no idea their green cards were tainted. One broker even acknowledges that his clients were innocent, and the government has yet to offer evidence to the contrary.
But after 15 years or more in the United States, the green card holders are discovering that the prosperous lives they have fashioned in their adopted homeland are in serious jeopardy.
Immigration and Naturalization Service investigators are tracking down many of them for deportation hearings, even though Sustaire testified that he burned all records from the applications. Included were original documents that cardholders could have used in their defense. A lawyer says the government is instead relying on an inaccurate list of names Sustaire compiled from memory.
The INS and Sustaire declined to discuss the case, and federal officials would not disclose how many immigrants have been contacted so far for possible deportation.
But Lee, who is out of prison, said none of his 50 clients knew of the bribes. "They thought they were paying for their cases to be expedited," he said. "As far as they knew, it was all legal. The bribes were between me and Leland Sustaire."
Most of the green card holders are in the Bay Area, but more than 100 live in Southern California.
They are people such as Seong Soon Han, a Vacaville woman who paid $30,000 for a green card. A Californian since 1986, she says she would miss the sheer physical beauty she has found here, from the rugged Big Sur coastline to the vast expanse of the Central Valley farmland.
"I love this country very much," said the 42-year-old former Seoul concert violinist. "I don't want to leave it. I can't go back to South Korea. My life is here now."
And there is the Northern California contractor who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. He became a key government witness in the criminal case against Lee. Despite his testimony, the INS office in San Francisco refused to offer any dispensation. Now he awaits notification of a possible deportation hearing.
In interviews, Han and the contractor said they believed an immigration broker could move their cases through the system more quickly. Lee also told them that much of their fees paid for his consultations with a reputable law firm that specialized in immigration issues.
Others met Choe and Lee and their families through local churches, which they say added to the brokers' credibility.
Fighting tears, the contractor said: "I am a good father and good husband. I would never do anything illegal."
The INS inquiries come at a time of heightened alert by federal officials in the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The agency also battles a flood of illegal entries each year, from Central Americans crossing the border to Asians arriving in container ships. Of the estimated 5 million people now in the country illegally, INS figures show, 40% entered on temporary visas.
Even today, many who received green cards from Sustaire have no idea that their immigration status is threatened, according to Alex Park, a San Jose attorney who represents 95 people in the case. He said 14 clients have so far been issued "notices to appear" at deportation hearings.
One green card holder has been deported already. Y.K. Kim, a 26-year-old Bay Area woman, was arrested at San Francisco International Airport in 2001 as she walked off Korean Air Flight 23, returning from Seoul. In court filings, prosecutors alleged that Kim tried to enter the country illegally, using a green card "issued to her based on a bribe paid to a corrupt service officer."
Under immigration law, the government says, Kim bears the burden of demonstrating her innocence.
Park, who represented Kim, says that his client's mother got the green card for her a decade ago and that prosecutors never proved she knew the document was obtained from a bribe.
"In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty," Park said. "But these people are summarily being declared guilty and the government is challenging them: 'Go ahead, prove to us that you're innocent.' "
Overcome by Guilt
In the late morning of Feb. 9, 1998, Leland Dwayne Sustaire walked into a Department of Justice field office in suburban San Bruno, introduced himself as an INS employee and asked to meet with investigators: He was tired of looking over his shoulder, he soon explained.
As Special Agent Ralph B. Curtis and a colleague from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General took notes, Sustaire told of accepting $500,000 in exchange for authorizing hundreds of Alien Registration Receipt Cards, commonly known as green cards.
The bookish-looking Texas native soon became the government's star witness against immigration brokers Lee and Choe. The day after talking with investigators, Sustaire wore a microphone while meeting with Lee in Sustaire's truck at a Burger King parking lot.
At Lee's trial, Sustaire explained why he finally turned himself in: "Guilt, shame for what I had become. It's been a heavy burden on me for a long time, and I wanted to get rid of it."
A 20-year government employee who started as a Border Patrol agent in Texas, Sustaire said he began accepting bribes in 1986 when he gained custody of his two daughters and began feeling financial pressures. The former INS examiner said he agreed to obtain a green card for a client of immigration broker John Choe in exchange for cash.
Eventually, under what would become a standard arrangement, Sustaire received 50% of what Choe charged clients. He eventually netted more than $300,000 from Choe in cash payments sent to a post office box in Tracy, an hour east of San Francisco.
One day in 1993, Sustaire was approached in a parking lot outside his Alameda County office by Daniel Lee. The broker explained that he had heard of Sustaire's dealings with Choe and said he had a client willing to pay $40,000 for permanent resident status for himself and his three children. Sustaire agreed to meet him at a nearby restaurant to discuss a long-term arrangement that eventually netted the official $200,000, according to documents.
Soon, Sustaire was taking orders from both brokers. Like Choe, Lee sent his cash payments to Sustaire's business front, Disaster Survival Provisioners Inc. Whenever Sustaire called Lee at KOAM Immigration Service, his code name was Bill, according to records.
In court, Sustaire testified that as supervisor in an office that conducted citizen application interviews, the issuing of green cards was totally at his discretion. But his role in the scheme was not without risk.
He often processed applications by secretly using an official stamp belonging to subordinates. He then forged the examiner's name, often that of a woman with a "scribble-like signature" that was easy to copy.
Sustaire began to spend his profits lavishly. He bought a sports car and expensive horses, and paid cash for improvements at his two-acre Tracy ranch. When a federal investigator showed up in 1994 to ask about his sudden wealth, Sustaire said the money came from an invention he had patented.
But the visit spooked him. He soon took scores of green card application files and burned them.
By 1998, documents show, Sustaire was worried that one of the brokers had organized-crime connections and turned himself in to federal officials.
Seong Soon Han clipped the newspaper ad about a green card service and showed her husband. It was 1993, and the couple, in the country on temporary visas, decided Northern California was the place to make their permanent home.
They soon met Lee, who showed them a fistful of green cards he had arranged. But his price was high: $30,000 for each document.
Han's husband called his parents in Seoul for the money.
Han recalled the day she got her card: "We were so happy. We had waited so long."
Then came the crash: a Korea Times article about a green card scam involving an INS agent and two brokers, including Lee and KOAM Immigration Service.
Han couldn't believe it. She called a San Jose lawyer quoted in the article, which described a government list of 275 names of people who received green cards through the scheme.
Was the couple's name on the list? she asked, breathless.
"We were crazy with fear," Han said.
For two years, they have waited. Han assumes that each telephone call will bring news of deportation. If she and her husband don't hear from the government by the time their green cards expire next year, they may be forced to move to Canada, where a lawyer there has told them he could secure legal documents for them. The prospect of being driven from California angers Han's husband.
"We had our little dreams of being American citizens, just like everybody else," he said. "We're good people. But now the government treats us like criminals. But the government is wrong. All our documents are legal. Our only mistake is that we trusted people."
Attorney Park, who represents the couple, says many who received green cards through Sustaire's scam would have been eligible without his assistance. "These people are conservative," he said. "They'd do anything they could to avoid such a risk. Why take part in a crime if you had the chance to achieve the same end legally?"
Instead, he says, the immigrants have been thrust into a Catch-22: The government is demanding that they prove their innocence. But the very documents they could use as part of their defense have been destroyed by their accuser. Said Park: "They're being cheated out of their due process rights."
San Francisco civil rights lawyer Robert Rubin agreed that the government should move cautiously. "If these individuals are in fact innocent of a fraud perpetrated in part by a government official, the INS ought to think twice before it denies them the benefits of a green card," he said. "They don't know the level of culpability."
The Northern California contractor knows he has paid a terrible price for doing business with Lee.
To make the $45,000 he paid for their green cards, the contractor, his wife and son moonlighted as janitors. The family wrote monthly checks to pay Lee. Why would they do that if they knew the payments were illegal? he asks.
Now they say they cannot leave the United States for fear that they will be arrested on their return.
Not long ago, the contractor took his family to Niagara Falls. They sat in the car and contemplated driving over to the Canadian side for a better look.
"We just stared at the border crossing, knowing we couldn't go," the son said. "I remember my father saying, 'Maybe we'll be able to go someday.' Then we turned the car around and came back."