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Do not forget about the Snakeheads
The Snakehead Lawyers
By Elizabeth Amon
The National Law Journal
In New Yorks Chinese community theyre called "snakeheads" -- smugglers who run the lucrative and dangerous underground trafficking in human beings. And, as in any business, the snakeheads need lawyers.
As a result, say a wide variety of sources, a group of attorneys plays a dual role. Although they nominally represent illegal immigrants who are caught and face deportation, they actually defend the interests of the smugglers, who pay their fees.
The snakeheads interests are in getting the immigrants out of custody quickly, so they can collect a fee of up to $80,000 per person, say the sources, who include immigrants advocates, lawyers, social workers, academics and an investigator for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
"The snakeheads really need that service," says Peter Kwong, a professor of urban planning and Asian-American studies at Hunter College in New York who wrote "Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor." "The biggest risk to their cargoes are basically that theyre being arrested, so the lawyers have to intervene."
The experts, backed by court records, paint a picture of a smuggling process that exploits thousands of people brought to this country to work in what amounts to indentured servitude. The smuggler lawyers, they say, play an intrinsic role.
"Theres no one who goes through smuggling without knowing what kind of legal services the smugglers offer," Kwong says. "Thats part of the reputation of the snakehead."
Spotlighting the problem earlier this year was the conviction of lawyer Robert Porges, who operated an immigration firm in Manhattan. A 90-count federal indictment said that he was deeply involved in smuggling.
Though the extent of Porges involvement with the snakeheads was unusual, the experts say, he was one of many lawyers who illegally and unethically earn a living off the trade. Despite the likelihood that business will go on as usual, none of several agencies that might address the activities of these lawyers has given it high priority.
The smugglers usually bring their "clients" across U.S. borders in groups of 10 to 300 by air, boat or land, according to Anthony Scandiffio, an INS investigator who testified in the trial of a Porges Law Firm employee.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 Chinese immigrants come to the United States every year. Virtually all have paid smugglers to be brought here. The Chinese smuggling is part of a worldwide trafficking in people that the State Department, which maintains a Web site on the subject, said a year ago was commonly estimated to be a $7 billion-a-year business.
Immigrants typically pay the snakeheads fee through loans their families get from underground banks often run by snakeheads. They are expected to repay them by working in restaurants and sweatshops. Paying the debt can take 12 hours a day, six days a week, for five years. Women reportedly are increasingly being sold into marriage to men willing to pay part or all of their debt.
Many of those smuggled here expect to be caught -- and many are -- so the illegal immigrants sometimes memorize the phone numbers of the lawyers wholl represent them. In other cases, the smugglers initiate the legal proceedings.
"Typically," Scandiffio testified, "what you will see with the agents is a smuggler who will bring lists of names of their aliens. It could be, if it is a boat, it could be anywhere from as small as 10 to maybe 100 aliens that they will be responsible for getting out of INS custody. Then that particular law firm will represent each one of those aliens on behalf of the smuggler."
The lawyer usually also contacts the detainees family in the United States, if there is one, to ask for documents that could help with a bond request -- and money in addition to what the smuggler has provided.
But, the experts say, the goal of the smugglers lawyers is only to get the immigrant released so the smuggler can be paid. So they often do the following:
Concoct asylum claims out of whole cloth.
Fail to investigate whether clients might actually have legitimate claims.
Abandon cases or do a sloppy job handling them.
The same lawyer often represents all of the immigrants who have come over on the same ship or have been stopped at the same point on the border.
"If a ship is busted in Savannah, the same one does all those cases, and its 75 cases," says Atlanta immigration lawyer Charles Kuck. "What -- all the families got together to hire the same one? It just doesnt work that way,"
Clients often are unaware that they have lawyers, advocates say. Holly Cooper of the Florence Immigrant Rights Project in Arizona, who represents children in INS custody, says that New York lawyers sometimes file notices of representation on behalf of Chinese children in custody in her state.
"I dont have any concrete evidence that its smugglers," she says, but she adds: "The kid would turn to me and say, "Im unaware that I have an attorney." How can a kid have an attorney-client relationship if hes never spoken to the attorney and doesnt know about the existence of the attorney?"
If a family member -- real or concocted -- can be found to sponsor the alien, the chances of release are high. Once the immigrant is released, the smuggler gets his fee and the immigrant can start work in a restaurant or sweatshop to send money home for repayment.
The lawyers, paid by smugglers only for the start of the case, often stop working on it after that, unless the family or immigrant has more money. Shoddy legal work can still make the high fees worthwhile because the immigrants, in seeking asylum, could spend longer in court than the three to five years needed to work off the debt.
"If he files one false retainer statement, take that lawyer out of circulation," says Hayes.