CHINATOWN — More than two dozen people were charged with running elaborate immigration fraud schemes, creating fake stories of persecution while coaching asylum applicants to lie to authorities, officials announced Wednesday.
Lawyers and staff from at least 10 law firms in Manhattan and Queens, in addition to four translators and one church worker, are accused of creating false applications to secure asylum for hundreds of Chinese immigrants intent on coming to the United States, according to the the FBI, the NYPD and the U.S Attorney's office, which worked together on the investigation.
Those involved in the schemes allegedly fabricated lies such as forced abortions or membership in religious sects persecuted by the Chinese government on asylum documents filed on behalf of immigrants, authorities said.
So far, 21 people have been arrested. Two more were expected to be handed over to authorities Wednesday, and three are still at large, officials said.
"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," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement, "coaching them on how to lie on their applications, stepping in when they went off script and lying to immigration judges at court hearings."
One indictment for several of those arrested describes in detail how staffers at two law firms, Moslemi and Associates and Bandrich and Associates, both located on East Broadway, determined if a client had the potential to be rebranded as an immigrant in need of asylum.
In order to be granted asylum in the United States, immigrants must prove they have suffered persecution or are at risk of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group," according to a statement from the agencies.
The indictment describes how paralegals, who were sometimes referred to as "story writers," created fake narratives for clients, including apparent torture at the hands of Chinese authorities for holding Christian beliefs.
To cover up their tracks, the firms allegedly referred some clients to Liying Lin, who claimed to be a deacon at the Full Gospel Church in Flushing and who schooled clients in the basics of Christianity.
Lin held classes to coach immigrants twice a week, according to her indictment.
George Venizelos from the FBI said religion was used "like a fake passport or a phony ID."
"The defendants allegedly conspired criminally to exploit the safe haven our nation provides for asylum-seekers," he said.
The charges for the 26 defendants include immigration and identity fraud. They face a maximum of between five and 35 years in prison, depending on the individual charges against them.