Jailed for Justice
Having spent almost three decades offering legal service to immigrants, Chinese American immigration attorney Manlin Chee is now getting used to serving time instead.
Chee had been a nationally recognized lawyer for her work with immigrants, some of it pro bono, and much of it for Muslims, but things soured for her soon after she appeared on a panel discussing the PATRIOT Act in March 2003.
The public forum at the main library in Greensboro, North Carolina was televised and attracted a large audience. Chee argued passionately that the PATRIOT Act violated the Bill of Rights and threatened the civil rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens.
"I'll never forget when Manlin joked that she had good news and bad news for the audience," recalls Tim Hopkins, an attendee. "She said that the bad news is that those people taking pictures of the audience are from the FBI. The good news is that they are coming after the panelists first. It was prophetic."
Indeed, within weeks the FBI began investigating Chee, says her attorney Locke Clifford. Clifford says the FBI had no record of complaints against her. But the agency began combing through thousands of Chee's case files. They even went back to her own citizenship application. The agents interviewed her clients and employees for over a year, until they indicted Chee for immigration fraud on June 26, 2004.
It was a dramatic fall for the successful attorney who once had offices in three cities and thousands of clients. The American Bar Association awarded Chee its public service award in 1991, which was presented to her by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She also received the 1990 William L. Thorp Pro Bono Award by the North Carolina Bar Association. The Triad Business News called her "one of the foremost immigration attorneys in North Carolina if not the country."
Many think that it was her political views that caused Chee's troubles.
"She was outspoken about the impact of the PATRIOT Act on the Muslim community and American citizens," says Badi Ali, President of the Islamic Center of the Triad and Muslims for a Better North Carolina. Chee also demonstrated her support of the Muslim community by wearing Muslim garb on Fridays, says Chee's youngest daughter, Leia Forgay. Forgay says it was symbolic. "She was letting people know that she will stand with them figuratively and literally."
However, fellow Greensboro immigration attorney, Gerry Chapman, questions whether Chee was targeted for her views. "There are attorneys in North Carolina who have spoken out against the PATRIOT Act and against targeting of Muslims, and the vast majority of them have not been investigated and indicted." He adds that he thinks Chee overextended herself. "Manlin's got a good heart, but she was trying to do too much for too many people."
Attorney Anita Earls, director of Advocacy of the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill, points out that "other immigration attorneys have engaged in worse practices -- and they were not investigated." She believes Chee was "singled out because of a combination of the clients she served and the fact that she was outspoken in her opposition to the war."
The FBI's strongest evidence came from two sting operations, the first one within weeks after Chee had participated in the PATRIOT Act forum, says Clifford. The informants posed as needy Muslims. One informant wanted to pretend he was gay so he could seek asylum, and the other informant wanted a sham marriage to get his green card. Chee was indicted for filing papers on behalf of both.
According to Forgay, the informants wouldn't stop asking for Chee's help: "My mom told them that there's nothing I can do, but they kept coming back to her and she couldn't say no. She always tries to help -- she went ahead and submitted the papers to try. She would feel worse if she didn't try."
Chee's former client and good friend, Melinda Macasero agrees. "Manlin had a hard time when she first came to the U.S., so she knows how hard it can be," Macasero says. "If you're an immigrant and you're a client of hers, she would go the extra mile to help."
Says Clifford, "Manlin never said no to anybody and the FBI probably said to themselves that if we run someone in there with a sad story, Manlin will probably take the bait."
Chee now admits she was "foolish" for succumbing to the sham entreaties. She describes one informant as being "intimidating," constantly calling, going to her office, and badgering her when she avoided filing the papers for months. Feeling "pushed" and suffering from an anxiety disorder, Chee finally relented under the pressure.
"Manlin did have some depression," says her close friend, Amelia Leung. "Her mental health does affect her sense of judgment sometimes."
During Chee's prosecution, a diverse group of community members rallied around her and formed the Manlin Chee Defense Committee, taking out a full-page ad in the local paper in her support. Notably missing, however, was a public outcry from the local Chinese community.
Meiling Yu, cultural promotion director of the Greensboro Chinese Association, says her organization just didn't know enough. "Because the charges are about her practice, which we are not familiar with, we didn't feel we had enough information to speak out in support of her." She notes the impression that Chee was targeted for her outspokenness, but as a nonprofit, they did not feel they could make a political statement.
"I can understand why they wouldn't speak out," says Macasero. "You are dealing with the government, and [people] are afraid they are going to get in trouble."
Ultimately, Chee pleaded guilty to the charges from the stings. Her daughter Leia, insists Chee pleaded guilty to keep her family together. The FBI had also indicted and charged Chee's oldest daughter, Chernlian, because she was a paralegal in Chee's office. Chernlian, who has an upcoming wedding, decided to cooperate with the prosecution: She would get probation if she pleaded guilty, but she would have to testify against her mother.
The anger in Leia's voice is palpable when she discusses the effect of her sister's decision. "My mom did the selfless thing and pleaded guilty to keep our family from tearing apart because she felt that this was a time when we needed to stick together. ... The hardest thing is not living without my mom, but living with the tension in the house because of my older sister and what happened."
Chee, however, fought all charges involving her work for real clients. Calling those charges "horsefeathers," Chee states, "I would rather rot in jail than to plead to charges where I prepared documents like every other lawyer in the country." Immigration expert Ira Kurzban agreed, testifying at Chee's sentencing hearing that her labor certification filings were like those of other attorneys.
Chee never went to trial. The federal prosecutor suddenly dropped all remaining charges against her, after she decided to plead guilty. On March 3, 2005, Judge James A. Beaty sentenced Chee to a year and a day in prison beginning April 22 at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia (better known as Martha Stewart's prison). Chee will be unable to attend her daughter Chernlian's wedding in September.
A former U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights attorney, Earls believes the government was making an example of Chee.
"The U.S. Attorney's office was certainly trying to send a message," she says. "Bringing down someone who previously had a strong reputation as an aggressive advocate is much more attractive to the U.S. Attorney's office than someone who doesn't aggressively stand up for immigrant rights."
Chee has been on disability inactive status since April 2004 with the State Bar of North Carolina due to her mental health issues, and cannot practice law. However, her youngest daughter, Leia, seems fiercely determined to take up her mother's torch and fight for the rights of immigrants. "Immigrants are often neglected in the law and in the community," Forgay observes. "You can't just leave out certain groups just because there are tensions with their community."
The sixteen-year-old admits that previously, she did not want to be a lawyer because she hardly saw her mother, who was working all the time. Forgay has changed her mind. "Now, after seeing what happened to my mom, they may be able to stop her, but they can't stop me from helping people who need it."