Broker Daniel Lee spent two years behind bars for his part in a scheme that paid a San Jose immigration supervisor $500,000 in bribes to authorize green cards for South Korean immigrants throughout California.
But customer Jung Hwan Kim may pay an even steeper price. Kim, who was 13 when Lee helped his family secure their documents in 1991, may be deported by government officials who say his green card is tainted.
Now 27, the New Jersey accountant is among 275 Korean immigrants singled out for deportation after Leland Sustaire, the immigration supervisor, turned state’s evidence in 1998 and helped convict Lee and another broker. He also supplied the names of green card recipients, two dozen of whom have been deported or left voluntarily. Some had been in the United States for two decades.
Lee, recently released from federal prison, says his customers are innocent.
“These people don’t deserve to be punished for this,” he said. “They were completely in the dark. And now they’re getting kicked out of the country.”
Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose) this week introduced legislation in Congress to provide relief for the two brokers’ former customers, most of whom live in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. If eligible, they “would regain the immigration status they had as if the fraud had not taken place,” according to the bill.
“This bill will bring justice to the innocent Koreans who unwittingly contracted with rogue immigrations brokers and were caught in the investigatory net,” Honda said in a statement. “These immigrants ... deserve fair treatment.”
Honda, who first introduced the bill in November, withdrew the legislation and tried again this week, hoping for more support. The legislation, which had a modest 10 sponsors last year, received 12 this time. Although many popular bills receive support from 200 congressional representatives, Honda’s staff is still hopeful that it will pass.
“We’re optimistic. This is a very specified remedy for people who have been wronged,” said Jay Staunton, a spokesman for Honda. “It’s a common-sense solution to an injustice that anyone can recognize.”
Alex Park, a San Jose attorney who represents 141 of the customers, said prosecutors and even the judge have shown an understanding of their plight.
“The Sustaire case is now formally referred to by immigration officials as Operation Totally Recall,” he said. “It’s like some Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Whoever is making the decisions to prosecute needs to take a second look at this.”
Federal officials say they have so far received no such direction.
“We’re here to administer immigration law. If Congress changes the law, we’ll administer the law as changed,” said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in San Francisco.
In the scam, which dates to the early ‘90s, 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. For his cooperation with prosecutors, Sustaire paid a fine and was given probation.
Federal officials point out that because an average green card application costs less than $700, the fees charged by the brokers should have suggested that their activities were illegal.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that under the scheme, applicants got visas for specialized professions in which they were not skilled. In one case, she said, a truck driver with a high school diploma received a visa for a research professor.
“Clearly, that was a stretch at best,” she said. “Many of these people came in for interviews supposedly petitioned by an employer, and literally none knew who that employer was. This clearly was a fraud scheme.”
She said that although most of the Korean Americans involved entered the country legally, their status had lapsed by the time they contacted the immigration brokers. “So if we return them to their status before they became involved in the scam, that would mean an illegal status,” she said.
“People need to understand that a visa scheme is a very serious matter that undermines the system and presents a very serious security threat. We have to send the message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”
Lee disagrees. “Some of our clients may have understood what was going on, but most did not,” he said. “They just wanted to process the paperwork in a timely way. I went to prison. I paid my penalty. I don’t think they should have to pay a penalty.”
In many cases, officials have demanded that the immigrants produce original documents to prove their innocence. But many supporting papers that the cardholders could use in their defense were destroyed by Sustaire, who burned hundreds of files when he sensed investigators were closing in.
As a result, many people have been sent to South Korea, a country where they have no personal history, friends or family.
Jung Hwan Kim worries about such a fate. His deportation hearing is scheduled for this summer, and he hopes that Honda’s legislation is passed in time to save him from deportation.
“Korea is not home to me. It’s like a foreign country,” he said. “Going back alone is hard enough. But once I get there, I have to do three years in the army, in a country I no longer consider my own.”
As with many other immigrants implicated in the Sustaire scam, Kim complains that the government’s handing of the case has dragged on for years. Park said two of his clients died before they got their day in court.
“If my family and others like us knew it was a fraud, we wouldn’t have [gotten] involved with these people in the first place,” Kim said. “Why would we break the law? Everyone here had legal status. We all figured we’d get our green cards eventually.”
Kice acknowledges that many children who did not knowingly break the law have been swept up in the enforcement net.
“Children often suffer the consequences of their parents’ bad decisions,” she said. “But if we extend benefits to them, we lose our credibility.”
While he awaits word on his fate, Kim’s personal and professional lives have come to a standstill. He’s afraid to tell his boss about his dilemma, afraid for his job. And he can’t tell friends or even the women he has dated.
“What can I tell friends? I’ve got a green card but it’s fake?” he asked. “I had a girlfriend, but always in back of my head I thought, ‘If things get serious, what can I tell her? Now that we may get married, I might get deported?’
“Everything is up in the air. The past six years I’ve been in jail. It’s been a living hell. And I just want it all to end.”