When her husband died unexpectedly two years ago, the Vietnamese woman became a single mother with two young children to raise on her own.
With no other family here, it was a struggle. To help pay the bills, she worked at a Honolulu sewing factory. She lived with her two boys, ages 3 and 7, in government-subsidized housing.
Just as the woman was adjusting to life without her husband, she found herself facing another potentially devastating blow to the family.
The federal government is attempting to deport her – for a fraud someone else committed.
She is not the only one in that predicament.
Fifty-one people face possible deportation because they came to Hawaii based on falsified paperwork prepared by Henry Hung Nguyen, a well-known businessman in the local Vietnamese community who helped dozens of his fellow countrymen immigrate to the islands.
Authorities are pursuing removal proceedings even though Nguyen’s victims – mostly rural Vietnamese who speak little or no English, have limited education and few financial resources – were unaware he falsified their immigration papers, according to federal officials and attorneys for about a dozen victims.
"This is like Bernie Madoff (the Ponzi scheme criminal) walking free and all the victims he deceived end up being prosecuted," said David McCauley, a Honolulu attorney for two of Nguyen’s victims. "It’s exactly like that."
Technically the government’s actions are within the law, immigration experts say.
Because the victims obtained visas based on falsified documents, they were ineligible for admission to the United States, even if they had no knowledge of the fraud, the experts say.
But prosecutors have the discretion to decide which cases to pursue, and priority should be given to pursuing illegal immigrants who are dangerous, such as violent criminals or terrorists, said Ohio immigration lawyer David Leopold, the incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Prosecuting fraud victims who have done nothing wrong makes little sense, especially given the government’s tight budgets, Leopold and others added.
"It’s beyond me that (the government) would waste time and tax dollars trying to deport people who are victims of fraud," Leopold said. "The government may have the law on its side, technically. But is this the right thing to do, the moral thing to do?"
Most of Nguyen’s victims have been in Hawaii for years – some more than a decade – and are working to support their families, the attorneys said. The government uncovered the fraud scheme after the immigrants applied to become U.S. citizens, triggering a paperwork review. Some already had passed their U.S. citizenship tests.
Federal officials defended pursuit of the Nguyen-related cases, saying combating immigration fraud is a priority.
"Such schemes not only threaten the integrity of the nation’s legal immigration system, they also potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice wrote in an e-mail to the Star-Advertiser. "That said, all individuals placed in removal proceedings, including those identified in this case, have full access to due process. Ultimately, it’s up to the judges who preside over the nation’s immigration courts to decide whether a person will be subject to deportation."
Kice also noted that the cases are being pursued administratively, not criminally, because there is no evidence the immigrants were aware of the illegal activity.
"Regardless, the beneficiaries of this scheme were inadmissible at the time of their entry into the United States due to the fraud/misrepresentation in the affidavits they provided," Kice wrote. "Given the circumstances, under current law, a removal proceeding is the only avenue available for these aliens to pursue legal status."
Nguyen, through his attorney, declined comment for this story.
His prosecution and the related deportation efforts underscore the attention federal authorities are giving to the nation’s immigration system during a time when terrorism threats, drug trafficking and other challenges are straining border resources.
Nguyen, who ran a one-stop business that included travel, tax-preparation, notary public and immigration services, pleaded guilty in 2008 to 10 counts of falsifying immigration documents. The indictment noted that at least 40 immigrants obtained visas after Nguyen, unbeknownst to the victims, falsified documents identifying people who were co-sponsoring the immigrants into the country. Nguyen listed the co-sponsors without getting their permission, according to federal authorities.
The co-sponsors were clients of his tax-preparation business, the victims’ attorneys said.
A co-sponsor is required when a U.S. citizen seeking an immigrant’s entry to the country does not make enough money from the government’s perspective to ensure the immigrant will not become a ward of government.
Because Nguyen was popular in the Vietnamese community, people sought his help to get a spouse, fiance or relative into the country. The families typically paid Nguyen a few hundred to thousands of dollars, federal officials said.
One victim of Nguyen’s scheme was a woman whose 17-year-old son just graduated as a co-valedictorian at a local high school.
Like other victims, the woman, who has been in Hawaii for 16 years and runs a lunch wagon with her husband, was reluctant to talk to the Star-Advertiser, partly because of the language barrier. Some victims also did not want to be identified because of their pending cases or because of the stigma associated with deportation.
The woman’s son told the newspaper that the mother’s deportation would devastate the family, including his 12-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister.
"If our mom is forced to leave, I think the household would crumble," the son said as his mother, sitting in a nearby chair, dabbed tears.
"It’s hard," said the son, who asked not to be identified. "This is just one more thing to worry about."
Not all of the 51 cases have gone before an immigration judge yet. Of those that have, only two have resulted in rulings so far, the victims’ attorneys say.
One immigrant was allowed to stay in Hawaii because the listed co-sponsor had agreed to sponsor the person. Only a portion of that paperwork had been falsified, according to the lawyers.
In the only other case with a ruling, the judge determined that the widow with the two boys should have known about the fraud because she is an adult, according to the attorneys.
Yet the paperwork in these cases generally is prepared in Honolulu, sent directly to a processing office in Vietnam and rarely is seen by the immigrant, the lawyers said.
Those who know Nguyen said they were shocked when they learned about the fraud, noting such actions were out of character for him. They said Nguyen volunteered at his church, did charity work, helped with voter registration drives and organized cultural events for the Vietnamese community.
For at least 15 years stretching into the 1990s, Nguyen also hosted a weekly radio program on KNDI aimed at the Vietnamese community.
"He was a very, very nice person, very giving," said Quoc Le, who described Nguyen as a best friend.
Le and others said Nguyen led a frugal lifestyle, reflected in his usual mode of transportation: a mo-ped.
"I’m absolutely sure he didn’t do this for the money," said Leona Jona, KNDI general manager. "He probably realized there was so much suffering of a very desperate people, and he felt like he had to help. Even the nicest people sometimes get into a situation where they’re not obeying the law."
Whatever Nguyen’s motivations, the immigrants whose families could be torn apart because of what he did are bitter.
Nguyen faced up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $2.5 million for the 10 counts of falsifying immigration documents.
But he ended up spending no time behind bars. The court placed him on three years’ probation, fined him $6,000 and ordered him to perform 900 hours of community service. Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam in 1969, was not subject to deportation for his conviction because he is a U.S. resident.
His victims, meanwhile, are spending thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to stay in the country and keep their families intact. The majority still live in Hawaii.
"The big injustice is Mr. Nguyen got a slap on the wrist, and these people are facing deportation," said attorney Robin Wurtzel, who represents several victims, including the widow.