The FBI said Tuesday it busted 26 individuals, including six lawyers, for allegedly coaching Chinese immigrants seeking asylum to fake sob stories about forced abortions and religious repression. The sting followed a three-year investigation.
Law enforcement officials netted a dozen Queens residents in the intricate and allegedly profligate scheme. Individuals from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Connecticut were also allegedly involved. Most of the defendants face charges of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. Some defendants could get up to 35 years in prison.
The indictments involve law offices guiding asylum-seeking immigrants from China through a series of covert training programs at various organizations throughout the city. Preparations included paralegals labeled “story writers” for their ability to craft intricate and wrenching stories of oppression, applicants watching Chinese soap operas to convincingly describe the anguish of a forced abortion, as well as a church official in Flushing prepping clients for possible questions about Christianity.
“As alleged, these defendants, including six attorneys and a church employee, exploited those laws by weaving elaborate fictions on behalf of hundreds of would-be asylum seekers, coaching them on how to lie on their applications, stepping in when they went off script and lying to immigration judges at court hearings,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
The charges cover 10 law firms around the city, which have filed more than 1,900 asylum applications over the past few years. They allegedly trained applicants to say they were Christians or practitioners of Falun Gong. Others were instructed to claim they had a forced abortion in China as part of the nation’s family-planning laws.
The U.S. offers asylum to immigrants a year after they move to the country. To qualify, applicants must prove suffering from persecution or fear future persecution if they return home.
About 34 percent of asylum seekers in 2011 were Chinese immigrants, with 8,600 applicants granted safe haven.