SAN JOSE — For 12 years, Leland Sustaire was the fix-it man, a veteran U.S. immigration supervisor who accepted $500,000 in bribes from two immigration brokers to authorize green cards for South Korean immigrants throughout California.
The scheme fell apart in 1998 when a nervous Sustaire turned himself in, agreeing to wear a hidden microphone to help indict Korean American brokers John Choe and Daniel Lee. Both were convicted of fraud and bribery in 1999 and sentenced to three years in prison. For Sustaire's cooperation, prosecutors argued that the 54-year-old former official should avoid time behind bars: He was sentenced to six months in a halfway house and six months' home confinement.
But the steepest price for the scam, immigration lawyers say, is being paid by the 275 green card recipients. Many are established professionals -- scientists, doctors, ministers, Silicon Valley software engineers and business owners -- who insist that they had no idea their green cards were tainted. One broker even acknowledges that his clients were innocent, and the government has yet to offer evidence to the contrary.
But after 15 years or more in the United States, the green card holders are discovering that the prosperous lives they have fashioned in their adopted homeland are in serious jeopardy.
Immigration and Naturalization Service investigators are tracking down many of them for deportation hearings, even though Sustaire testified that he burned all records from the applications. Included were original documents that cardholders could have used in their defense. A lawyer says the government is instead relying on an inaccurate list of names Sustaire compiled from memory.
The INS and Sustaire declined to discuss the case, and federal officials would not disclose how many immigrants have been contacted so far for possible deportation.
But Lee, who is out of prison, said none of his 50 clients knew of the bribes. "They thought they were paying for their cases to be expedited," he said. "As far as they knew, it was all legal. The bribes were between me and Leland Sustaire."
Most of the green card holders are in the Bay Area, but more than 100 live in Southern California.
They are people such as Seong Soon Han, a Vacaville woman who paid $30,000 for a green card. A Californian since 1986, she says she would miss the sheer physical beauty she has found here, from the rugged Big Sur coastline to the vast expanse of the Central Valley farmland.
"I love this country very much," said the 42-year-old former Seoul concert violinist. "I don't want to leave it. I can't go back to South Korea. My life is here now."
And there is the Northern California contractor who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. He became a key government witness in the criminal case against Lee. Despite his testimony, the INS office in San Francisco refused to offer any dispensation. Now he awaits notification of a possible deportation hearing.
In interviews, Han and the contractor said they believed an immigration broker could move their cases through the system more quickly. Lee also told them that much of their fees paid for his consultations with a reputable law firm that specialized in immigration issues.
Others met Choe and Lee and their families through local churches, which they say added to the brokers' credibility.
Fighting tears, the contractor said: "I am a good father and good husband. I would never do anything illegal."
The INS inquiries come at a time of heightened alert by federal officials in the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The agency also battles a flood of illegal entries each year, from Central Americans crossing the border to Asians arriving in container ships. Of the estimated 5 million people now in the country illegally, INS figures show, 40% entered on temporary visas.
Even today, many who received green cards from Sustaire have no idea that their immigration status is threatened, according to Alex Park, a San Jose attorney who represents 95 people in the case. He said 14 clients have so far been issued "notices to appear" at deportation hearings.
One green card holder has been deported already. Y.K. Kim, a 26-year-old Bay Area woman, was arrested at San Francisco International Airport in 2001 as she walked off Korean Air Flight 23, returning from Seoul. In court filings, prosecutors alleged that Kim tried to enter the country illegally, using a green card "issued to her based on a bribe paid to a corrupt service officer."
Under immigration law, the government says, Kim bears the burden of demonstrating her innocence.
Park, who represented Kim, says that his client's mother got the green card for her a decade ago and that prosecutors never proved she knew the document was obtained from a bribe.
"In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty," Park said. "But these people are summarily being declared guilty and the government is challenging them: 'Go ahead, prove to us that you're innocent.' "