3 lawyers, 2 interpreters convicted in audacious asylum scam
By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee, June 27, 2009
Prosecutors said it was one of the most audacious immigration scams in the nation, one that resulted in hundreds of foreigners winning asylum in the United States by concocting phony claims that they were being persecuted in their homelands.
They came from India, Romania, Fiji and Nepal. And, the government said, they found three lawyers and two interpreters who helped them come up with phony documents, doctors' letters and affidavits designed to support their claims of ethnic, religious or political persecution.
On Thursday, after a complex three-month trial in federal court in Sacramento, a jury agreed that a massive fraud had been uncovered.
All five defendants were convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government by filing false asylum claims, as well as numerous other charges. Some of the charges resulted in not-guilty verdicts, but federal officials said the jury agreed with the bulk of their case.
'I'm glad it's over; it was a long trial,' said lead prosecutor Benjamin Wagner. 'I think it's an important prosecution because of the importance of the asylum process, and the conduct of the defendants in this case really was a challenge to the integrity of that process.'
Wagner said the verdicts send 'a strong message to people who are going to litigate before this country's immigration authorities: It's a serious process, and you have to play by the rules.'
The case involved a law firm with offices in Sacramento and San Francisco that was run by brothers Jagprit Singh Sekhon, 39, and Jagdip Singh Sekhon, 42. A third attorney who worked with them, Manjit Kaur Rai, 33, and two interpreters also were charged.
The government said the five were involved in fraudulent activity from 2000 through 2004 that may have resulted in somewhere between 400 and 1,000 asylum seekers being allowed to remain in the United States after producing evidence that they would be harmed if returned to their native land.
During the trial, which was watched closely by immigration experts across the country, Wagner hammered at the defendants, saying they had engaged in 'an assembly-line fraud factory that turned out hundreds of false claims.'
Clients came to Sekhon & Sekhon from Washington, Arizona, Illinois and Michigan but claimed on paper to be residents of Northern California so they could remain within the jurisdiction of the San Francisco asylum office, prosecutors said.
The government contended that the defendants coached asylum seekers on how to answer questions and gave them phony stories to memorize for immigration officials, even though they were under oath.
Supporting documents said to have been notarized in India or Romania turned out to be counterfeit, with some created on a computer in Sacramento, the government said.
The investigation began after Mark Temple, an asylum officer in San Francisco who was familiar with Romania, noticed unusual similarities in claims the Sekhon firm had submitted for different asylum seekers.
Eventually, investigators sent an undercover Romanian informant to the Sekhons seeking immigrant status.
The informant told some of the defendants that he had not been persecuted in Romania, but they nonetheless filed a claim saying he repeatedly had been 'attacked, arrested and beaten unconscious by police due to his Baptist religion,' the government said.
The defense denied the claims, maintaining the defendants never falsified forms or coached clients to lie. Instead, they said, they simply briefed asylum seekers on what questions they might be asked and how best to answer.
But the jury wasn't buying much of the defense, and delivered its verdicts Thursday.
The three lawyers and two interpreters Iosif Caza, 43, and Luciana Harmath, 29 were convicted of the overarching charge of conspiracy to defraud immigration authorities by filing fraudulent claims. All but Jagdip Sekhon were convicted of a separate charge of conspiracy to submit a false asylum claim, and various other guilty verdicts also were rendered.
Defense attorney Tim Zindel, who represented Caza, said he planned to seek a new trial.
'We're disappointed by the verdict and we plan to appeal,' he said.
The defendants have been free on bail since being indicted in 2006 and face a hearing today on whether they may remain out of jail pending sentencing, which is scheduled for Oct. 16.
Wagner said each could face from two to five years in prison, although sentencing guidelines differ. The three lawyers also could lose the right to practice law. Rai and Harmath, who are not U.S. citizens, could be deported after serving their sentences.
Meanwhile, immigration authorities must decide whether to review the cases of hundreds of immigrants who were granted asylum through the scheme.
'Through the granting of asylum, this nation offers its protection to victims of ethnic, religious, and political persecution from across the world,' acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown said in a statement Thursday. 'These defendants made a living out of cynically abusing the asylum process.'