Special Report: Asylum Crackdown : Planet Money We tell the story of a massive crackdown on asylum fraud, and the fallout.
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Special Report: Asylum Crackdown

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Special Report: Asylum Crackdown

Special Report: Asylum Crackdown

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Quick note - this episode has some explicit language.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When Lawrence left Jiangxi province for America, he arrived with the usual plan.

LAWRENCE: I think I would become a millionaire.

CHANG: Really? You thought you were going to become a millionaire?

LAWRENCE: I always quite have a lot of confidence in myself.

CHANG: But New York put him in his place really fast. He fell into a miserable string of odd jobs, working illegally, first, at a window and door company, then at a glass factory. Nothing lasted.

LAWRENCE: Sometimes I even didn't know why I bothered coming over to the United States and why working for those shatty (ph) jobs.

CHANG: Those what jobs?

LAWRENCE: I say shitty jobs.

CHANG: Oh, shitty. Shitty - I know that word. OK.

And then one day, while he was still down in the dumps, he saw an ad in the paper. An immigration law office near Chinatown needed a Chinese translator. Finally, a prestigious opportunity - a law firm. He applied for the job, and he got it.

But when he walked into this impressive, new law firm, he saw just three desks crammed into one tiny room. That was the whole office. Every phone call, every cough - everyone heard everything. And what Lawrence heard most often were Chinese immigrants coming by and asking for help getting asylum in the U.S., which felt nice to Lawrence. He had just recently won asylum himself, and now he could help other Chinese people do the exact same. By the way, we're not using his real name for reasons that will become very clear later on.

Anyway, the more closely Lawrence listened from his tiny corner of that tiny office, the more he started to realize that these were very special asylum cases.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I saw it from the very beginning.

CHANG: Like what? What did you see?

LAWRENCE: Like, the first week, the office manager would talk to the client about what kind of story they should make up, what kind of fake documents they should provide. And she made up those stories.

CHANG: Lawrence says the lawyer he worked for didn't so much specialize in asylum law as in asylum fraud.

LAWRENCE: And then I realized this is open secret in Chinese immigrant community.

CHANG: What's an open secret?

LAWRENCE: Many Chinese people making asylum fraud.

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

Asylum fraud. What Lawrence had stumbled into was an underground network of professional story writers, coaches and scammers gaming the asylum system.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "COLD HEART")

CHANG: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Ailsa Chang.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin.

CHANG: Asylum has become a huge business in Chinatowns across America - a legitimate business. And it's incredibly important work helping immigrants flee sometimes the worst imaginable circumstances.

DUFFIN: But whenever there's a system set up to fulfill good intentions, there will be people who will exploit it. And Lawrence found himself working for those people. And then, ultimately, he found himself at the center of what could be one of the biggest crackdowns on asylum fraud in ICE's history.

CHANG: And I had no idea how complicated this story was going to be when I started looking into the asylum business a half-year ago. I thought this was just going to be a story about one Chinese asylee who was facing deportation. But as I investigated her case, I quickly discovered it wasn't just her. There are 13,000 more people in her situation - a group of people whose stories haven't been told yet. These are mostly Chinese immigrants who could also be losing their asylum status. And we have to say, this is a story that took us to some pretty uncomfortable places and challenged what we thought we knew about the asylum process.

All right. So back in Chinatown in Manhattan, it's 2007. And Lawrence is working for a lawyer named Ken Giles, a breezy guy who Lawrence says ran the office in kind of an absent-minded way. Ken grew up in Oklahoma City, where he says he never met a single Chinese person ever. He graduated from law school later than most people do - well into his 30s. And he stumbled into asylum work after answering an ad in the New York Law Journal.

KEN GILES: You know, I was thinking to myself, well, I don't know what kind of a lawyer I'm going to be, but if somebody wants to hire me to be a lawyer, that's the kind of lawyer I'm going to be (laughter), you know?

CHANG: By the time Lawrence met Ken, Ken says more than 80 percent of his cases were asylum cases.

GILES: It's huge. It is absolutely huge. It is absolutely huge. Everybody I know that practices immigration law that has Chinese cases, it's mostly asylum.

DUFFIN: Asylum is a form of protection that the U.S. government gives to immigrants who are trying to escape persecution in their home countries. In 2016, more than 20,000 people got asylum here. And for years, Chinese immigrants have been the most successful at getting it. The Chinese apply the most often, and they win the most often.

CHANG: But in Ken Giles' office, they were winning by cheating. And Lawrence says he was really torn about this. He knew this was against the law and that there were people out there who truly deserved asylum, but Lawrence was also an immigrant.

LAWRENCE: Sometimes, I justify it in this way: I say, OK, I'm helping people. I'm helping those lower-class Chinese people to get their status in the United States. They don't really commit crime. They don't - what they want, just find a job here and work in the Chinese restaurant. So that's the way I justified my wrongdoings.

CHANG: And the more he justified those wrongdoings, the deeper Lawrence got - until eventually, he landed at one of the biggest asylum operations of all.

LAWRENCE: Probably the largest law firm in Chinatown at the moment.

DUFFIN: It was a law firm run by a woman named Feng Ling Liu. And it was everything Ken Giles' office was not. It was a model of efficiency. Asylum applications were manufactured along an assembly line where each worker was assigned a specific task.

LAWRENCE: Each of us become expert in the area we are working on. Some people, it was just answering the phones or dealing with clients; some of them, just coaching; some of them just writing stories.

CHANG: And that was Lawrence's station in this assembly line, writing stories. He'd be holed up all day in a room designated only for story writers, churning out totally made-up asylum claims hour after hour.

In a way, Lawrence had the most important job of all because the key to getting asylum is the story you tell the U.S. government. It has to be a story about suffering - but only a certain kind of suffering, the kind of suffering the government has deemed worthy of its protection. And the suffering that counts in this system is targeted persecution based on your race, your religion, political opinion or some particular social group you belong to.

DUFFIN: And something like, say, gang violence - that doesn't usually count. It's just not targeted enough. But the stories Chinese asylees tell, they tend to check the right boxes - like abortions forced by the Chinese government's family planning policy or government oppression for supporting democracy or for being a Christian.

CHANG: And Lawrence found the best place to start stories like that was actually with a grain of truth. Say a woman really did have an abortion in China. Even if it was by choice, he'd spin that into a story about an abortion forced by the government. Or if a client endured some real-life tragedy, he would say that tragedy is why she converted to Christianity.

DUFFIN: Little specks of truth spun just right and you have yourself an asylum case.

CHANG: Like with Zhenyi Li - she was a Chinese immigrant who had run out of ways to stay in the U.S. until her aunt said, just go do asylum.

ZHENYI LI: (Through interpreter) It felt like people all around me were doing it - people I worked with, some people in my circles. From what I could tell, applying for asylum to stay in this country, it was just a normal thing to do. It seemed like everyone was doing it.

CHANG: And that's when Lawrence met Zhenyi. It was spring of 2011. Zhenyi was a model client. She was 29, college-educated - which meant she could memorize more made-up facts. Also, Zhenyi actually did get an abortion in China - but willingly. And she had occasionally gone to church.

DUFFIN: So Lawrence just took all of that and basically just turned up the volume a bit and gave them a twist. It was the twist that even Zhenyi found a bit much. We're going to have our interpreter read from the actual asylum statement that Lawrence wrote for her.

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) I was stopped by two family-planning cadres at the entrance of my apartment. I knew the consequence, so I struggled against them at all my strength. But they pulled me to a nearby van by force and drove me to the...

CHANG: Fictional Zhenyi is forced to get an abortion. She then slumps into a deep depression...

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) What happened to me in the hospital became my nightmare.

CHANG: ...Which she finds her way out of by becoming a devout Christian.

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) The Lord Jesus is our shepherd, whose love healed the wounds in my heart.

CHANG: Until one day, the police ambushed her church.

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) They accused us of traitors who spread the Western, evil cult.

CHANG: The police officers try to get her to sign a confession letter. She refuses.

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) Thereafter, they beat me when they found I did not cooperate with them. I was slapped in my face several times and kicked several times, even sexually harassed by them.

CHANG: So this was Zhenyi's asylum story. And now she had to play the part. She says the law office had her go to church a lot - four times a week - until she got a baptism certificate. And then Lawrence coached her for the asylum interview. He told her what questions to expect, how best to answer them. And next, he helped her rehearse her fake asylum story...

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) This incident gave me a big blow.

CHANG: ...Over and over again.

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) I was depressed for a while. I could not perform as usual.

CHANG: And then I love this last line.

LI: (Reading, through interpreter) I beseech the U.S. government to let us stay and not to send us back to the hell-like China.

LAWRENCE: (Laughter) I almost forget how laughable they are.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: I read that story, and it sounded so fake - like, just...

LAWRENCE: Because you are outsider.

CHANG: ...Totally fake. OK.

LAWRENCE: You know, because you are outsider. For those asylum officers and 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.

CHANG: In other words, to Lawrence, the asylum system was so drenched in lies that true stories of suffering no longer sounded worthy of asylum. The truth just wasn't dramatic enough anymore. You almost had to lie, he said, to rise above the noise.

DUFFIN: Zhenyi Li was granted asylum on June 28, 2011, on her first try.

Lawrence says he wrote 500 to 600 stories this way. He also mapped out which asylum officers were more likely to accept certain kinds of asylum stories. Say, you're meeting with Officer George? You're going to want to tell him an abortion story. If you meet with Officer Sally and you want to say that you'd converted to Christianity, she's going to want to hear a few Bible stories.

CHANG: Was there a part of you that was kind of proud of yourself that you were so good at this?

LAWRENCE: Kind of - because I was beating down the system.

CHANG: How did that feel?

LAWRENCE: I just feel like they are not doing their job. They shouldn't let me win the game so easily.

CHANG: That's how Lawrence saw it. Gaming the asylum system was sport. And maybe people like Lawrence were able to game the system so easily because they were good at it - and maybe also because the lies they told are ones that many Americans believe. They were lies that supported the perception that the communist government in China would oppress its people.

But after four years, he just got tired of it. And he decided he just wanted to get clean. He wanted to get out of the racket. So he started law school. He was determined to become a legitimate lawyer, to finally live that American dream he came here for.

DUFFIN: But then, in the middle of his first semester, his cellphone rang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Two weeks before Thanksgiving, I got phone call. It is FBI agent.

DUFFIN: The FBI agent said, we need to talk.

CHANG: After the break, Lawrence gets thrown back in - way back in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: OK. So this FBI agent is on the phone. And he asked Lawrence to meet him at the FBI office in Manhattan. Lawrence's wife, who was pregnant at the time, drove him down the next day. She waited in the cafeteria while he went upstairs. And there, Lawrence was greeted by two agents.

LAWRENCE: One of them is Asian - is Korean-American, I believe so. And other one is regular white people.

DUFFIN: The agents told him, we know all about the asylum fraud, and we know that you are part of it.

Here's how Lawrence says it all went down. The agents told him that the FBI had been tailing him for more than a year. They whipped out photos of Lawrence having dinner with lawyers or other interpreters who were also in the asylum business. And they told him a big raid was coming - something massive, something really high profile. And they said, look. You can either join your colleagues in prison, or you can help the FBI.

CHANG: So here was Lawrence, just inches from becoming a lawyer. His wife was pregnant. He wanted to stay in the U.S. He thought he should cooperate. But some of the people they wanted him to narc on were dangerous. He heard some were connected to human smugglers. But he says the FBI told him - hey, look. If you cooperate, we're going to protect you.

LAWRENCE: They said they can hide me somewhere in Midwest and use a different name, different Social Security number with different occupation.

CHANG: Lawrence also says the FBI agents told him that they would make sure he would not get charged with any felonies. That way, it would be easier to still become a U.S. citizen. But we read the cooperation agreement he eventually signed, which he shared with us. And it doesn't contain those promises. In fact, it tells him he was still at risk of being deported.

DUFFIN: But whatever the government promised him in exchange for cooperating, Lawrence also had been feeling a little guilty about what he'd done. So when they approached him, he decided, you know what? I'm not just going to leave this industry.

LAWRENCE: But I want to leave it - I want to give this industry a big fuck you.

CHANG: So Lawrence talked...

LAWRENCE: ...What kind of fake document they should provide...

CHANG: ...And talked...

LAWRENCE: They should - made up those stories...

CHANG: ...And talked.

LAWRENCE: ...In their own words.

CHANG: He told them everything he knew.

LAWRENCE: This is open secret in Chinese immigrant community.

DUFFIN: And so Lawrence became the central witness in what the FBI would call Operation Fiction Writer.

CHANG: Which, of course, means he needed a code name.

What was your code name?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, called Torque.

CHANG: What?

LAWRENCE: T-O-R-Q-U-E.

CHANG: Torque? Your code name was Torque?

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

DUFFIN: Torque - as in the force that turns something. Lawrence became the FBI's torque. He turned their entire investigation around.

CHANG: Lawrence gave the agency 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 huge study guides, which plainly laid out every step of the fraud from story writing to evidence fabrication to interview coaching.

DUFFIN: And then the FBI turned him into - we're going to call him a special agent. They gave agent Torque some spy gear.

LAWRENCE: Actually, I would expect something really sophisticated from FBI. But actually, that's just, like, hearing aid kind of stuff.

CHANG: Oh. It looked like you were wearing a hearing aid?

LAWRENCE: Seems to look like that.

DUFFIN: A hearing aid with a ridiculously long cable snaking underneath his FBI-issued shirt.

LAWRENCE: And every time, they asked me to wear their shirt, the shirt they gave me.

CHANG: Oh.

LAWRENCE: But the shirt was really ugly...

CHANG: (Laughter).

LAWRENCE: ...I have to say.

DUFFIN: The recorder for his special hearing-aid microphone bulged conspicuously from his back pocket. And the special spy camera that they gave him - it actually poked out from his shirt collar.

LAWRENCE: It's like a big button.

CHANG: It looked like a big button - the camera?

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

CHANG: And armed with this state-of-the-art spy gear, Torque went back into the asylum mills and started recording. He made 16 recordings in all. And one of his very first targets was a personal one - Ken Giles, that first asylum lawyer he'd worked for in that tiny office. Lawrence had a special distaste for Ken.

LAWRENCE: He didn't work really hard, and I got a bit of trouble with people with that work ethic. And...

CHANG: You thought he was lazy.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, he was lazy. He was very, very lazy.

CHANG: To nail Ken, Lawrence offered to help him write one last asylum application.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, a completely made-up story. I never talked to that client, or I didn't even call the client.

CHANG: Then he walked into Ken's office, turned on his camera and recorded himself telling Ken all about how he fabricated this woman's entire asylum statement. And we never got to see the video, but Lawrence says it showed Ken praising the story that Lawrence had made up.

DUFFIN: And in December 2012, Ken Giles got a phone call.

GILES: Oh, this is agent, you know, so-and-so at the FBI. We have a warrant for your arrest. I'm, like, you have a warrant for my arrest? Yeah. For what? Conspiracy to commit immigration fraud.

CHANG: This is Ken Giles again. And he says the feds got it all wrong.

GILES: I never told anybody to pretend to be anything - never. That's a lie. That is a lie.

CHANG: Do you think there was any coaching in your office?

GILES: I don't think so, but I don't know.

CHANG: You don't know because...

GILES: Because I don't speak Chinese (laughter).

CHANG: Still, Ken totally acknowledges that many of the stories contained in the asylum applications he signed sounded exactly the same over and over again.

GILES: I mean, I've read background materials about forced abortions in China, so I know it happened, you know? And if they were just, like, oh, yeah, you know, I had an abortion, you know. Yeah. It's pretty cool. You know, if they (laughter) - I mean, if they were like that, I'd be, like, come on, you know? But if they start crying and exhibiting some sort of pain when recounting that...

CHANG: You wouldn't question it.

GILES: Well, I would question it, but, you know, I'd tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

CHANG: But why isn't it your job to figure out if they're really telling the truth?

GILES: How do you do that if it's 50/50, though? You know what I mean? If you think, well, it could be, or it couldn't be, how do you say no?

DUFFIN: Faced with a warrant for his arrest, Ken Giles turned himself in at 9 a.m. sharp the next day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Twenty-six people have been charged in New York for helping to make false asylum applications.

DUFFIN: In total, Operation Fiction Writer rounded up 30 immigration lawyers, paralegals and interpreters in December 2012. And prosecutors credited Lawrence with providing evidence against at least half of those defendants.

CHANG: We reached out to immigration officials to weigh in on this case, but they declined to do an interview for this story.

DUFFIN: Ken Giles pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, and he got two years in prison. His office manager also pleaded guilty. And Feng Ling Liu was found guilty at trial.

CHANG: And Lawrence - at this point, people recognized him from the Chinese newspapers. They knew he was the government's star witness. They confronted him at the grocery store and on the street, telling him he was a traitor. And that deal - that deal he says the government made with him - you know, we'll protect you if you help us? He got charged with more serious crimes than even Ken Giles did.

LAWRENCE: I find out FBI lied to me...

CHANG: How did they lie to you?

LAWRENCE: ...In front of my face.

CHANG: How did they lie to you?

LAWRENCE: I find out they brought felony charge against me and more charge than my boss get. And then I find out I couldn't apply for U.S. citizenship.

DUFFIN: The judge in Lawrence's case did cut him some slack. He got just six months' probation, even though he faced a maximum of 25 years. But since Lawrence had pleaded guilty to felonies, it would then probably be much harder for him to become a U.S. citizen.

CHANG: And the witness protection stuff - that also never happened. So Lawrence thought, I got to get out of here - get far, far away from New York.

DUFFIN: So Lawrence did his best to disappear. He got into a Ph.D. program in Arizona, and he moved there to start a new life. He started going by his Chinese name instead of his English one. And the lawyers who were convicted in Operation Fiction Writer - they helped more than 3,700 immigrants win asylum. And when one Republican congressman heard about that - Bob Goodlatte of Virginia - he sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding that they re-open those asylum cases and figure out which of those clients lied and should therefore lose their asylum status.

CHANG: And the lawyer who worked most closely with Goodlatte on that issue was a man named Tracy Short. After Donald Trump was elected president, Trump put that lawyer, Tracy Short, basically in charge of all the lawyers who oversee deportations.

DUFFIN: And, as all of this was happening back in Washington, D.C., Lawrence was in Arizona building a new life - until, one day, he got a call. It was immigration officials. And they said, you're not done yet. Come back to New York.

CHANG: And there, immigration officials led him into a room filled with boxes and said they needed him to identify the asylum applications of former clients that he knew lied.

LAWRENCE: And then they said they get, like, 20 cases.

CHANG: He says they called him again in March 2017.

LAWRENCE: I meet two ICE attorneys. They said they got 200 cases.

CHANG: ICE even planted decoy files in the boxes. But Lawrence knew exactly which stories were his.

LAWRENCE: That's why they call me photocopy memory.

CHANG: Three months later, ICE was on the phone again.

LAWRENCE: They said they got 2,000 cases now.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

LAWRENCE: That's 2,000 cases. I would spend, like, a decade on that. I basically become slave to U.S. government, right?

CHANG: Immigration officials wouldn't confirm for us whether they did try to pull Lawrence back into these client cases. But Lawrence says, at this point, he was thinking, I just can't anymore. He started trying to avoid their phone calls.

LAWRENCE: And then something happened that's really scary.

CHANG: He was sitting inside his small graduate student office when he heard a noise he didn't recognize.

LAWRENCE: The phone calls. It's from my old office phone that no one actually called.

CHANG: This is, like, an old office phone that never rings?

LAWRENCE: I didn't even know that phone was working at that moment.

CHANG: Lawrence says it was a dusty rotary dial phone. He picked the phone up slowly. The person on the other end said he was calling from ICE. He also called Lawrence by his English name - the name he was trying to bury out in Arizona.

DUFFIN: Lawrence says this felt like a message, a power play. Like, ICE could have called him on his cell phone. They could have emailed him. To him, this was the government saying, we can find you anywhere you are.

LAWRENCE: That's really Big Brother. That's so "1984."

CHANG: The guy from ICE said the government needed him again.

LAWRENCE: At that time, I was so scared. And I refuse. I say no, I couldn't help you. I don't really want to help you.

CHANG: Not just because he didn't want to spend decades on this but because, at this point, the investigation had moved into a new phase. And he knew that if he helped, it would mean destroying potentially thousands of lives.

DUFFIN: During the prosecution, Lawrence says he was comfortable helping the government go after the industry. But in this new phase, the government's going after the clients, and that just didn't sit right with Lawrence.

CHANG: Why are the two situations different to you?

LAWRENCE: Those Chinese immigrants, those clients - they even didn't know they commit crimes for doing that. Their attorney just tell lie to them to do that.

CHANG: Well, some of these clients knew very well that they were lying on their asylum application.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, they know that, but when your attorney promise you you will be fine, they couldn't really make a right judgment.

CHANG: The way Lawrence tells it, the government is mixing up what is legal with what is right. It made sense to him to go after the lawyers, but the clients were just doing what the lawyers told them to do, he says. Lawrence wants no part in helping the government strip asylum from people who won it years ago, even if it means going into hiding forever.

Do you really think that the federal government won't be able to find you now?

LAWRENCE: I don't think so.

CHANG: But what are your plans? I mean, are you just going to keep I mean, are you just going to keep running from ICE forever?

LAWRENCE: What else I can do?

CHANG: And that is why he asked to go by Lawrence in this story and is talking to us on Skype from an undisclosed location. Now immigration officials wouldn't confirm for us whether they really did try to pull Lawrence back into all these client cases, so we're telling Lawrence's side of the story here, even though we know he did lie for a living. But in this case, his story checked out. The government was undertaking a massive review of client cases from Operation Fiction Writer.

And now Lawrence's decision to disappear has left it to others to wrestle with a broken asylum system. It's a system that was created after World War II, and it was based on kind of a wistful ideal - that the government will protect people with true stories of suffering. But over the decades, the question that's persisted is, how do we know when people are telling the truth?

DUFFIN: It's impossible to fact-check every detail of the 20,000-some stories that win asylum every year. So this is a system that runs on hunches - the hunch of the lawyer who signs your asylum application, the hunch of an asylum officer or immigration judge who decides your claim is credible.

CHANG: And Lawrence admits he took full advantage of this and helped subvert the very system that gave him a chance to stay in the U.S. But he says his decision to disappear now will help many people, and he's proud of that.

LAWRENCE: I think I did something great. I think I make it much harder for ICE to deport thousands of people.

CHANG: But you were the one who helped a lot of people write false things in their asylum applications, and that's why ICE is going after them now.

LAWRENCE: But right now, without my help to ICE, I probably will make it much harder for ICE to deport them. And they may have a chance to stay in the United States.

CHANG: They may. But we have learned that since 2014, thousands of asylum claims have been thrown into doubt.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENET WALSH AND THOMAS KENNEDY'S "SEPIA DREAMS")

CHANG: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told us they are reviewing the asylum cases of more than 3,500 former clients of all the lawyers convicted in Operation Fiction Writer. They told us that if they don't scrutinize these old asylum cases, the American people, law-abiding asylum-seekers and the rule of law all suffer.

They are also reviewing the asylum case of every spouse and child of those clients, meaning these are people who had just kind of inherited asylum status from their parent or their spouse years ago, and that's how they were able to stay in the country. But they may not be able to anymore.

DUFFIN: So the total USCIS confirmed to us is more than 13,000 immigrants who are now facing possible deportation. Immigration lawyers told us that they have never seen asylum cases systematically reviewed on a scale like this in ICE's entire history.

CHANG: And one of those cases is Zhenyi Li. Remember her? She was the asylum applicant whom Lawrence had helped whose story we had heard earlier. Well, in the fall of 2012, she had also helped the government during Operation Fiction Writer. And in return, the government promised her they wouldn't prosecute her and that, in fact, they would bring her cooperation to the attention of ICE if she wanted them to.

But in 2016, Zhenyi Li received a letter from the government that read, notice of intent to terminate asylum status.

LI: (Through interpreter) I thought the government promised me my situation wouldn't get worse if I help them. I helped them, didn't I? Why aren't they helping me?

CHANG: Zhenyi cooperated with the government, and now that cooperation is being used against her.

DUFFIN: Immigration officials got ahold of every self-incriminating statement that she made while helping the FBI. And now they're using precisely those statements as the evidence to deport her - and not just her, but also her husband, who got asylum status through her.

CHANG: And, look; when we were reporting this story, we couldn't decide who to be angry with or who to feel sorry for. I mean, how do we weigh the relative wrongs in this system? And then we heard Zhenyi say something that just kind of summed it all up for us.

LI: (Through interpreter) Yes, I did trick the government. But in the end, the government tricked me back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "EDGE OF FEAR")

CHANG: This story would not have happened without Lauren Hilgers. Her book, "Patriot Number One: American Dreams In Chinatown," was what first got me thinking about Chinatown's asylum business. And special thanks to David Kestenbaum for being an early listener, and to Jason Dzubow, an asylum lawyer who answered, like, hundreds of my questions.

DUFFIN: This episode was produced by Sally Helm, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Aviva DeKornfeld. Bryant Urstadt edits PLANET MONEY. Alex Goldmark is the supervising producer. Get in touch with us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

CHANG: I'm Ailsa Chang.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "EDGE OF FEAR")

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