NPR's Ailsa Chang has a wild story about a man who found his American dream writing fictional stories for asylum applicants. Years after being caught, he is in hiding from the FBI but sharing some of his best work with NPR over Skype.
Chang's story acts as a sequel to "Asylum Fraud in Chinatown: An Industry of Lies" (New York Times, 2014). When Times reporters Kirk Semple, Joseph Goldstein and Jeffrey E. Singer left off, the Obama administration had just cracked down on multiple law firms in New York City that specialized in fraudulent asylum claims -- one of "the most common forms of immigration fraud" in the U.S. Several lawyers (along with others involved in the fraud) were prosecuted, but none of the asylum applicants who submitted the false claims. At the time, the number of fraudulent submissions was unknown (the Times put it in the "hundreds.").
Four years later, NPR's Chang reports that at some point between 2015 and 2017, the government began looking into the actual claims filed by those convicted during Operation Fiction Writer. A total of 3,500 asylum are now under review plus an additional 10,000 cases of family members of the original asylum recipients.
One of the chief sources in Chang's story is man called Lawrence. NPR never states it outright, but Lawrence appears to have arrived in the U.S. illegally (or overstayed a visa) and "fell into a miserable string of odd jobs working illegally" before carving out a career making up ridiculous stories for asylum applicants. After getting caught, he initially cooperated with the FBI but is now in hiding as a conscientious objector to the government's attempts to revoke asylum status for his clients. In the spirit of his vocation, "Lawrence" is a name he came up with. NPR spoke with him by Skype to gather details about the visa mills that employed him.
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.
In a remarkable anecdote, Lawrence describes how he blended fact with fantasy to create a story for Zhenyi Li, designed to check all of the aforementioned boxes:
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.
The strategy to overwhelm the system with fraudulent claims is playing out on the southern border as well. Reuters reports:
Paying smuggling rings between $25,000-$50,000 per person, a growing number of Indians [around 9,000 in FY 2018] are illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and claiming asylum for persecution, CBP spokesman Salvador Zamora said.
Many present viable claims, but a large number are economic migrants with fraudulent petitions that swamp the system and can cause legitimate cases to be "washed out" in the high volume of fraud, Zamora said in an interview.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Oct 5th 2018 @ 9:40am EDT