Two Bay Area members of Congress appealed to the federal government Wednesday on behalf of 275 South Korean immigrants threatened with deportation for receiving green cards through a scam run by a former Immigration and Naturalization Service officer.
In a letter to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, Reps. Mike Honda and Zoe Lofgren, both San Jose Democrats, asked that U.S. Justice Department officials review the case and require INS officials to present evidence that the immigrants knew their documents were illegally acquired.
Honda said in an interview Wednesday that the immigrants suffered not just from an illegal scam but from an overzealous Justice Department mandate to pursue immigrants at any cost in the months after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"People are being abused," he said. "The attitude that Ashcroft has taken is, 'If in doubt, deport.' There's a sense that it's easier in this administration to err in deporting someone rather than considering leniency. And that is not right."
On Friday, Jong Hoon Kim, the Korean consul general in San Francisco, plans to meet with David Still, the INS acting director in the Bay Area.
"Our consulate is very concerned about this case," said Inki Lee, a consulate officer. "It is very troubling."
INS officials refused to comment Wednesday on the deportations or the substance of the letter. But a Justice Department spokesman said the agency would look into the matter. "We will review the letter from the congressional members as we do all congressional requests," spokesman Mike Corallo said.
Leland Sustaire, a former supervisor in the San Jose office of the INS, turned himself in to federal investigators in 1998, acknowledging that he had been paid at least $500,000 by two Korean American immigration brokers to issue green cards to Korean immigrants in California.
In the scam, which dates to 1986, brokers Daniel Lee and John Choe collected as much as $30,000 in each case to "expedite" processing of green card documentation.
Both Lee and Choe served time in federal prison, and two other accomplices received probation. For his cooperation with prosecutors, Sustaire paid a fine and was given probation.
Immigrants now threatened with deportation include established professionals -- scientists, doctors, Silicon Valley software engineers and business owners -- many of whom have been in the country since the mid-1980s.
So far, one South Korean woman has been deported, arrested at San Francisco International Airport after returning from a trip to Seoul. About 14 others have been notified that they are to report for hearings.
An attorney close to the case said INS officials recently broadened the scope of their deportations and have brought in at least six new investigators to track down immigrants.
Lawyers for the immigrants say the green cards are legitimate, but they acknowledge that they were obtained for their clients through fraud. In an interview, Lee said that his customers did not know their green cards were obtained as part of a scam.
The congressional letter states that many immigrants presented authentic documentation, filled out relevant immigrant forms and, in some cases, reported for INS interviews as part of their applications.
"The green cards have allowed these immigrants to build their lives in our communities and become stakeholders of the American Dream, a dream we all share," the letter states.
Alex Park, a lawyer representing 95 of the immigrants, said the INS had placed his clients in a Catch-22. Officials are demanding that they produce original documents to prove their innocence. But many supporting papers that the card holders could use in their defense were destroyed by Sustaire, who burned hundreds of files when he sensed investigators were closing in.
Honda said he has no sympathy for Sustaire, whom he called a "corrupt official," but said innocent immigrants should not pay the price for his crimes. He said his office planned to follow up with Justice Department officials and did not rule out asking for special hearings.
"We're not asking for blanket amnesty," he said. "But the government has discretion in this matter. Anyone who reads of this situation would think that the government would have contacted these victims and offered to exchange their bogus green cards for legitimate ones.
"But that's not what INS officials did. They didn't do the logical thing. So we're asking Ashcroft to look at this."