NPR's Planet Money has learned that more than 13,500 immigrants, mostly Chinese, who were granted asylum status years ago by the U.S. government, are facing possible deportation.
As the Trump administration turns away asylum-seekers at the border under more restrictive guidance issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Executive Office for Immigration Review are considering stripping asylum status from immigrants who won it years ago.
Immigration officials are moving against these immigrants in a sweeping review that federal authorities say is related to a 2012 investigation into asylum mills. During that probe, federal prosecutors in New York rounded up 30 immigration lawyers, paralegals and interpreters who had helped immigrants fraudulently obtain asylum in Manhattan's Chinatown and in Flushing, Queens. The case was dubbed Operation Fiction Writer.
The federal government says the people convicted during Operation Fiction Writer had helped more than 3,500 immigrants, most of them Chinese, win asylum. Authorities accused them of dumping boilerplate language in stories of persecution, coaching clients to memorize and recite fictitious details to asylum officers, and fabricating documents to buttress the fake asylum claims.
In the years after the prosecutions, immigration officials have been reviewing those asylum cases to determine which clients lied on their asylum applications and therefore should be deported.
One of those rounded up during Operation Fiction Writer cooperated with authorities on the investigation. The man, who asked that we call him Lawrence, helped the government between 2011 and 2014. He says that he worked for lawyers who reassured their clients that they would be fine if they fabricated their claims of persecution in China and that those clients were just heeding legal advice.
He is in hiding now because of the government's escalating demands that he continue cooperating — this time against those former clients. Planet Money spoke with him on Skype but does not know his exact location.
Lawrence, a Chinese immigrant himself, says the government pressured him in the past couple of years to help review asylum cases he may have worked on as an employee at more than one law firm. He helped with that effort initially but has backed away as the number of people the government is targeting has skyrocketed.
Lawrence says that he didn't have a problem helping law enforcement arrest lawyers in 2012, but that he feels very different about helping law enforcement punish immigrants years after they won asylum.
"Because targets are different," he says. "Those Chinese immigrants — those clients ... their attorney just tell lie to them, to do that."
The way Lawrence tells it, he is fighting a larger battle now against government agencies that are mixing up what is legal with what is right. He wants no part in helping the government use the letter of the law to strip asylum from people who won it years ago — even if that means he has to remain in hiding.
Lawrence says his disappearance will make it much harder for immigration officials to possibly deport thousands more people back to China, a country that he says does not treat people who had sought asylum kindly.
An unprecedented review
In a written statement, USCIS confirmed the substance of Lawrence's story — that immigration officials are now reviewing 3,500 asylum cases handled years ago by the people convicted during Operation Fiction Writer. Immigration authorities also confirm that they are reviewing the asylum cases of more than 10,000 family members who were granted what is called "derivative asylum status."
Therefore, in total, more than 13,500 immigrants who were granted asylum before December 2012 could lose it.
At the time the prosecution was announced in 2012, officials in the Obama administration, including then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, decided not to criminally prosecute any clients.
Today, "USCIS, ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor and the Executive Office of Immigration Review are reviewing these cases to maintain the integrity in our nation's asylum system and to ensure that the original asylum grant was lawfully obtained," says Katherine Tichacek, a spokeswoman for USCIS, in a written statement.
It isn't unusual for immigration officials to review the case of a former client whose lawyer has been convicted of asylum fraud. But immigration lawyers say they have never seen officials systematically review old asylum cases on a scale like this in ICE's history.
It is hard to say exactly how many of the cases handled by the guilty lawyers were in fact fraudulent. Fact-checking each requires confirming claims and stories that allegedly happened years ago, in other countries with separate legal systems.
Tichacek explained that when an old asylum case is flagged during this review for potential fraud, lawyers at ICE will file a motion to reopen the case with the Executive Office of Immigration Review. If an immigration judge grants the motion, the asylee is granted a hearing. The judge will then reaffirm the grant of asylum or terminate asylum status.
"The agencies are reviewing each case file and making lawful determinations in accordance with due process of law," says Tichacek.
Someone whose case is "reopened" can pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend against the allegations, even if there was no fraud.
An immigrant's struggle in New York — and an opportunity
In July 2005, Lawrence boarded a plane from China to New York City. In his mind back then, there was no question how his new life in America would turn out. "I think I would become millionaire ... or something like that," he says. "I always quite have a lot of confidence in myself."
But Lawrence remembers his first year in the U.S. as a horrible year. He fell into a miserable string of odd jobs working illegally in the Flushing area — at a window and door company, at a glass factory and elsewhere.
Then in January 2007, he saw an ad in the paper: An immigration law office right next to Chinatown needed a Chinese translator. He faxed his résumé over, and they called him up immediately to ask him when he could start.
It turned out that the tiny law office specialized in asylum cases. Lawrence soon would learn that he had dropped into a world with huge stakes.
Asylum is a fast, direct path to staying in the country. It is hard to win, but if you do, you get immediate permission to work. You're also eligible for a green card within a year — and then citizenship five years after that.
For years, the Chinese have won more asylum cases than immigrants from any other country. About 22 percent of the 20,455 individuals granted asylum in 2016 were Chinese immigrants, according to the most recent figures from USCIS. The next largest group is immigrants from El Salvador (10 percent) and then immigrants from Guatemala (about 9 percent).
The lawyer who ran the immigration office Lawrence joined back in 2007 was named Ken Giles. Lawrence says Giles' law office had only three desks, crammed into a tiny room. Everything that happened, Lawrence says, happened out in the open.
"I realized this is open secret in Chinese immigrant community ... many Chinese people making asylum fraud," he says.
According to Lawrence, a client would walk in and tell the office manager that he or she would like to try for asylum because that is what a friend or relative suggested.
"The office manager would talk to the client about what kind of claim they should pursue and what kind of story they should make up, what kind of fake document they should provide," says Lawrence. "And [the manager] made up those stories. She wrote them down and asked those client to copy it in their own words."
One reason Chinese immigrants have been successful at winning asylum is because the most common stories submitted by Chinese applicants fit neatly into the criteria asylum officers and immigration judges use to grant asylum.
In the U.S., before you can get asylum, the government wants to hear a story from you — a story about "a well-founded fear of persecution." That persecution has to be based on your race, religion or political opinion, or on some "particular social group" you belong to — and it has to have been targeted specifically against you.
Central American immigrants have had a tougher time for years getting asylum based on claims that they are fleeing criminal gang violence because it's harder to prove that a threat is targeted or that the government is doing nothing to stop it. Chinese immigrants don't have that problem — their most common asylum stories involve being targeted by the government.
The claims have fallen into three buckets: persecution under the country's family planning policies, persecution by the government based on the person's religion — usually Christianity or their membership in the spiritual sect Falun Gong — or persecution by the government based on the person's activism in favor of democracy.
Inside the asylum mills
The way Lawrence tells it, he watched and learned the ins and outs of the asylum fraud business in Ken Giles' office. About a year and a half later, he says he ended up at an even bigger operation: A law firm run by a woman named Feng Ling Liu.
Like Ken Giles, Lawrence says, she focused almost exclusively on asylum cases. Lawrence compared the office to a factory, with each worker having a designated task, whether it be translating, coaching or story-writing.
Lawrence says he started as a story writer at Feng Ling Liu's firm. He would begin with certain details about a client that were actually true and weave them into a larger drama of government persecution. Lawrence learned that the stories had to be vivid and tell tales of great suffering. And only certain kinds of suffering, the kind that checked off the correct boxes, would do: targeted persecution, by the government, that was based on religion, politics or China's family planning policy.
Lawrence estimates he wrote 500 to 600 fake stories for clients over the course of a couple of years. He compiled a massive study guide for coaches to use with clients. And he made the law firm's interpreters collect field data for the guide — profiling asylum officers by what the kinds of questions they tended to ask and the answers they seemed to prefer.
Lawrence says he started rationalizing his behavior at this point: "Sometime I justify in this way: I say, 'Okay, I'm helping people. I'm helping those lower-class Chinese people to get their status in United States. They don't really commit crime. ... What they want, just find a job here and work in the Chinese restaurant.' "
Around November 2010, Feng Ling Liu's office fired Lawrence. He says they were tired of dealing with his part-time schedule. So a few months later, Lawrence found himself back at Ken Giles' office, helping out with a few asylum cases.
It was spring 2011. That was when Lawrence met Zhenyi Li, an immigrant who had run out of ways to stay in the U.S. when her aunt told her, "go do asylum."
"It felt like people all around me were doing it — people I worked with, people in my circles," says Li. "From what I could tell, applying for asylum to stay in this country was just a normal thing to do."
To Lawrence, Li was like a jackpot client. She was young, 29, and college-educated. Also Li had chosen to get an abortion back in China and had gone to church occasionally while growing up.
These were useful facts Lawrence could play with in her application. Within days, he had crafted a lurid asylum story for Li, recounting a brutal abortion forced by the Chinese government and a violent crackdown on Li's Christianity.
Today, when Lawrence revisits this story, he starts laughing.
"I wrote so many ridiculous cases on daily basis," he says. "For those asylum officers and those immigration judge, they are buried by this kind of fake story every day, so they don't know what real story should be looking like."
When Li first read the story, she wanted to laugh. "I thought, 'This isn't my story. It was not me,' " she says. "It was so exaggerated. So made-up. This was not my life."
Li was granted asylum on June 28, 2011, on her first try.
Investigators make their pitch
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Lawrence got a phone call from the FBI. He would soon learn, he says, that the FBI had been tailing him for more than a year. The agents told him that a big raid was coming and that there was nothing Lawrence could do to stop it. They told him he could either join his colleagues in prison, or he could help the FBI.
He says he agreed to cooperate immediately.
"I just felt so depressed for what I did for the last couple years," he says. "And then I all of sudden find, find a chance to tell everything. To outburst it."
He gave the bureau a detailed picture of all the people involved in pumping out fraudulent asylum applications in Chinatown and Flushing. He pored over photo books to identify suspects. He turned over his study guide, which plainly laid out every step of the fraud from story-writing to evidence-fabrication to interview prep.
He went back into the asylum mills wearing a hidden camera, making 16 secret recordings in all. His goal was to catch as many people as possible. One of his first targets was Ken Giles. And Lawrence helped flip three more people who became cooperating witnesses.
One of them was Li, who says the agents offered her a deal.
"They said that they wouldn't prosecute me if I cooperated. And they offered to help me with immigration. They said they would tell immigration officials I helped the FBI," says Li. "They said I might not be better off if I cooperated, but that I certainly wouldn't be worse off."
In 2014, Feng Ling Liu was tried and found guilty of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud. She could not be reached for comment. Ken Giles pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and was sentenced to two years in prison.
In a recent interview, Giles maintains he never advised a client to lie on an asylum application.
"I never told anybody to pretend to be anything. Never," says Giles. "That's a lie. That is a lie."
If there was coaching by anyone else in his office, Giles says he wouldn't know because he doesn't speak Chinese. But he says he pleaded guilty because he felt like he had no choice.
As for Lawrence, he discovered that cooperating witnesses don't get to just start over.
The federal government decided to charge him with three felonies — two counts of immigration fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud — which meant it would be much harder for him to ever become a U.S. citizen. He faced a maximum of 25 years in prison, but the judge gave him credit for his cooperation and he was sentenced to just six months probation.
A new beginning ends
Lawrence later left New York City and moved to the Southwest, hoping to start over — but in the fall of 2014 he learned that Operation Fiction Writer hadn't ended for him. Lawyers at ICE tracked him down and said they needed his help on just a few more cases: They wanted him to help identify former clients that he knew had lied on their asylum applications.
Operation Fiction Writer had been about nailing the industry. Now, Lawrence realized, the government was moving in on the customers.
It's not clear exactly when this new phase of the investigation began in earnest. Immigration officials say they started to review client cases in 2014.
But it was a 2015 Government Accountability Office report about Operation Fiction Writer that caught the attention of Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia — the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, demanding that she review and reopen each of the thousands of asylum cases related to Operation Fiction Writer to determine which clients had lied on their applications.
Tracy Short, the lawyer on staff with the House Judiciary Committee, took the lead on this issue for Goodlatte. He left the committee to become the new principal legal adviser for ICE under President Trump in early 2017 and now commands an army of more than a thousand lawyers inside the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of litigating all removal cases for the government.
That may explain why Lawrence says phone calls from ICE began intensifying in early 2017.
First, immigration officials told him that they had about 20 more client cases they needed his help on. Then in March 2017, Lawrence got another phone call from the agency: "They say they got 200 cases."
Three months later, ICE was on the phone again. This time, they said they needed him to cooperate on 2,000 more cases.
Lawrence says he wasn't interested and was determined to move on with his life.
"I was so scared, and I refused," Lawrence says. "I say, 'No — I couldn't help you. I don't really want to help you.' "
Immigration officials wouldn't confirm whether or not they had asked Lawrence to return to these cases. And while it's true he once made a living lying, this part of this story checked out: The government was indeed undertaking a massive review of client cases from Operation Fiction Writer.
Lawrence says he knew that if he really wanted out, he would need to find a way to disappear. So he fled. Planet Money spoke with him on Skype but does not know his exact location.
Meanwhile the government's review has marched forward. In a joint statement from USCIS and ICE, immigration authorities said, "[A]s agencies dedicated to upholding lawful immigration we will continue to shine a light on acts of fraud wherever they exist. When our government turns a blind eye to these actions, the American people, law-abiding benefits[-] and protection[-] seekers and our rule of law all suffer."
Cooperation becomes ammunition
In December 2016, more than five years after winning asylum, Li — the immigrant Lawrence helped who had become a cooperating witness in Operation Fiction Writer — got a piece of mail from USCIS. It read: "Notice of Intent to Terminate Asylum Status."
At that time, Li was waiting for her green card. The document informed her that she would have to go through her asylum interview again, and that this new interview would be based on her original asylum story — the one story she already had confessed to the government was a puffed-up lie.
The cooperation agreement Li had signed in 2012 says the FBI would put in a good word for her with ICE, if she requested. She hadn't yet made that formal request to the FBI, and in the meantime, immigration officials had gotten ahold of every self-incriminating statement she made while cooperating with the investigation.
In fact, USCIS detailed those statements in the notice they sent her: "On October 22, 2012, you provided testimony to the FBI on the Giles law firm. You testified that Mr. Giles and his office workers created your asylum claim and that your entire asylum story was fabricated by the Giles law firm." The document then outlines her testimony in detail.
The FBI had promised to help her with immigration officials if she wanted, but it was precisely her cooperation with the FBI that gave immigration officials the evidence they needed to deport her — as well as her husband, who received derivative asylum status.
"Yes, I did trick the government," Li says. "But in the end, the government tricked me back."