By Stephen Magagnini
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - For years, Sacramento's Sekhon & Sekhon law firm was renowned as a beacon of hope.
The firm, boasting a 95 percent success rate, helped more than 1,000 immigrants from a half-dozen nations get political asylum in the United States based on a fear of persecution.
Many of those new asylees now stand to be deported, because as many as 700 - coached by the firm's lawyers and interpreters - told phony stories of torture and rape to immigration judges and asylum officers.
In June, following a three-month trial in Sacramento's federal court, three of the firm's lawyers and two interpreters were convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government. Prosecutors call it one of the most brazen immigration scams in U.S. history.
In the months since, those who work in the asylum system have had to confront serious questions about a time-honored process that is based largely on trust: How did the firm get away with the fraud for so long? And how vulnerable is the process to liars and con artists?
The firm's founders, brothers Jagprit Singh Sekhon and Jagdip Singh Sekhon, along with attorney Manjit Kaur Rai and Romanian interpreters Iosif Caza and Luciana Harmath, return to court Dec. 17 for sentencing. Each faces up to 10 years in prison.
Between 2000 and 2004, the defendants filed hundreds of claims for Romanians, Indians, Nepalis and Fijians. They made more than $1 million charging clients for bogus addresses, medical reports, notarized declarations and tales of rapes and beatings that never took place, court records show.
The case exposed a vulnerability that experts say is inherent in the system: With tens of thousands of refugees asking for asylum every year, overworked judges often rely on gut instinct about the evidence presented. That evidence frequently consists of little more than the applicant's testimony, so the detailed documentation presented by Sekhon & Sekhon swung the scales in their favor.
Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a veteran judge in San Francisco's immigration court, called the Sekhon case "the worst-case nightmare come true for people who are cynical about the asylum process to begin with."
"My colleagues have said it's very difficult to tell an asylum seeker with a good claim from a good liar," Marks said. "We're death penalty cases in traffic court settings. If somebody tells me he's going to be persecuted when he goes back home and I'm wrong, I'm sentencing him to death."
Marks said immigration judges typically have about 1,200 cases pending and need more time on each "to allow the story to be fleshed out so you can catch inconsistencies and implausibilities."
Often, she said, the applicant offers no supporting evidence.
"What makes asylum cases tricky for immigration judges is people don't get notes from their dictators," Marks said. "You're trying to decide cases without traditional documents that court cases often rely on. We usually get one story from one vantage point."
That can work against some applicants who tell the truth but have no documentation, Marks said. "People can be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that makes them terrible witnesses."
The Sekhon firm became an asylum factory, court records show. Lawyers and interpreters crafted fictional stories of persecution they thought would fly - in some cases even when their clients had true tales of persecution.
The firm's statement on behalf of a 51-year-old Romanian Pentecostal claimed that when he tried to bury a member of his congregation he was arrested, cursed as a "devil," and beaten by police "until I lost consciousness."
A 36-year-old Sikh from Punjab said she watched police beat her father, who had helped hide a member of the Punjabi independence movement. She claimed "police kicked me in my sides, stomach, back, buttocks and legs."
Those stories were fabricated, prosecutors said, but the firm backed up its cases with phony medical records and government documents, which made the stories harder to reject.
The case "reveals a systemic problem," said McGeorge School of Law professor Raquel Aldana. "The judges have heard so many sad stories, it's hard to say who's telling the truth and who's not. They may have liked these cases because they seemed well-substantiated."
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Marks would like to see more resources for investigations to ensure "the courts can rely on the documents that are presented."
In the Sekhon case, an alert asylum officer who had worked in Romania thought something didn't seem right about all the claims of religious persecution in the post-communist era. Investigators called doctors and officials in Romania and determined the documents were fabricated.
Some advocates would like to see the government do more investigations in applicants' home countries. But, in some countries, sending an investigator to substantiate claims of brutality could put the applicant's family at risk, said Benjamin Wagner, the Sacramento-based U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Sekhon case.
Camil Skipper, an assistant U.S. attorney who helped Wagner with the prosecution, said the Sekhon convictions in themselves should help strengthen the asylum system: "We believe this case will serve as a deterrent."
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Unlike refugees who generally are granted legal status in the United States after they've fled their homeland to a third country, those applying for asylum ask for refuge after entering the United States.
Applicants must convince asylum officers and judges they've been persecuted or have a well-founded fear they will be based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
In a typical year, U.S. immigration courts receive upward of 50,000 requests for asylum. The percentage of requests granted has risen from about a third early in the decade to almost half from 2006-2008.
Nationwide, more than 420,000 people were granted asylum between 1990 and 2008.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Many believe asylum saved their lives. Among them is Senait Berekete Ghebremariam, a former Eritrean journalist. In one of several windowless immigration courtrooms in downtown San Francisco, Ghebremariam, 38, told her story recently to Judge Loreto S. Geisse.
The judge warned her that if she lied, she would be barred for life from getting asylum.
Ghebremariam nodded, then said she and her five sisters were circumcised as babies, as is the custom of the Tegrinya ethnic group. She described a country hostile for women. While in the army, she said, she was raped by a brigadier general.
She told the judge she was jailed for treason stemming from her dialect. Once released, she fled. Her odyssey took her through Africa and South America. She asked for asylum at the Arizona border and ended up in San Jose, Calif., where she has relatives.
She testified the circumcision scarred her emotionally. She has no desire for physical intimacy, she said, and wishes she could have children, but "I'm so worried about my physical condition and the pain it creates."
She said she would be killed if forced to return.
Judge Geisse quizzed Ghebremariam about other Eritrean journalists, and she knew them. Prosecutor Scott Gambill had her recall dates and details, and interviewed a midwife about the extent of Ghebremariam's genital mutilation.
Ultimately, the judge granted her asylum.
Gambill said the government's role isn't to block people like Ghebremariam, who are deserving of protection.
"Asylum is a sacred trust, and my role is to weed out the ones who are not deserving and don't have a well-founded fear of persecution," he said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
In the wake of the Sekhon case, the San Francisco asylum office is interviewing each of the 700 people caught up in the scam to decide whether to revoke their asylum.
If the government ends up sending hundreds of cases back to immigration court, they're going to pose a tremendous challenge, Judge Marks said.
"These are going to be hotly contested cases as to whether or not the person who says he was prejudiced by an unethical lawyer deserves a second chance," Marks said. "We're going to have to work through them case by case, judge by judge, and it's the judge's job not to be cynical and burned out."