EVANSTON, Illinois —The recent revelation of asylum fraud in New York’s Chinatown has lead to the prosecutions of 30 people, including attorneys who reportedly falsified documents.
But the bust begs us to address a more tragic problem than the crime itself: the complicity of United States Customs and Immigration Services in a trafficking business that generates $9.5 billion in the US each year.
The United States offers two programs that can provide refuge to individuals that have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution: a refugee program for persons outside the US and their immediate relatives, and an asylum program for persons in the US and their immediate relatives. Asylum fraud is fabricating persecution in order to claim the benefits of asylum.
In 2002, I was asked to assist a woman from China with asylum. As her lawyer and believing her story, I submitted an affidavit of support signed by her aunt, brought toiletries to the Chicago airport where she was being detained and defended her in a credible “fear” interview. Through an interpreter, she explained that she feared China’s one-child only policy.
After the woman was released, a man from Chinatown picked her up, along with four other Chinese women. He was a smuggler who, I learned, picked up women each week, sometimes as many as 10 at a time.
Unable to let it go, I tracked my client to the airport, where I learned she was going to Georgia. She unfolded two hundred dollar bills from a roll and tried to hand them to me, but I didn’t accept.
Disturbed by the events, I contacted an officer from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (now US Customs Enforcement) that had processed my documents. He dismissed my concern and said the system works for everyone involved. In fact, the detention center had falsified the time of my client’s release so that I arrived to pick her up an hour after the man from Chinatown had been there.
I was shocked by how the agency facilitates the asylum fraud industry. Knowing that these women were arriving in a steady flow of about 10 a week at O’Hare, Immigration routed them to McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois, where on an average day, 50 weaved origami baskets to pass the time. The jail earned $2 million annually this way through its contract with the federal government.
A Chicago Tribune article highlighted that the women had been smuggled into the US.
The Chinatown asylum fraud is tied to the trafficking industry. Women work for years to pay off smugglers that arrange for their trips to the US. The going rate can be $50,000 or more, according to Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College who has been documenting Chinese smuggling in New York's Chinatown for decades.
Social scientists estimate that as many as 27 million men, women, and children are victims of trafficking at any given time, despite US commitments to fight trafficking and protect victims that are subject to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude and sex trafficking.
Although it is difficult to know precisely the number of people trafficked in the United States, they are likely rising. The Polaris Project hotline responded to nearly 21,000 calls in 2012 and has experienced a 45 percent increase in 2013.
If the US were serious about cracking down on asylum fraud, it could have raided Chinatown years ago. One answer to the question of why authorities raided now is China’s announcement that it is ending its one-child only policy in 2015 due to labor shortages.
This raid is tied to the reality that the asylum smuggling business, which has fed off of US desire to have China be seen as a human rights offender through its one-child only policy, is now coming to an end.
In 1996 Congress passed an asylum law that was aimed at China, stating that a person who has a well-founded fear of undergoing an abortion is deemed to have been persecuted based on political opinion.
China consistently tops all nationalities in US asylum applications and grantees.
Government failure to expand legal pathways to immigration makes the US complicit in a trafficking industry that preys upon the real need for young women to seek a better life.
In the Augusta, Georgia, area, where my client was headed, there have been raids in recent years on spas operating as houses of prostitution with girls being trafficked across state lines.
I do not know whether my client ended up there, but I do know that refugees like her are involved.
What this story reveals most is the need to fix our broken immigration system. More legal pathways to immigration in the US would cut down on trafficking and asylum fraud.
When the smuggling chain works properly, lawyers, like the ones in Chinatown, receive a cut of the payment to assist refugees and migrants in fabricating stories they know will lead to asylum since they feed US foreign policy interests. More problematic are people, like my client, who were released from detention based on a credible fear of returning to China, but who will never actually file a claim for asylum that would give them a path to citizenship because they are victims of trafficking.
People, like my former client, desire to come to America to seek a better life than the ones they left. The least the US can do is protect them in this process.
Galya Ruffer is director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University.