An Agent, a Green Card, and a Demand for Sex

March 21, 2008
No problems so far, the immigration agent told the American citizen and his 22-year-old Colombian wife at her green card interview in December. After he stapled one of their wedding photos to her application for legal permanent residency, he had just one more question: What was her cellphone number?

The calls from the agent started three days later. He hinted, she said, at his power to derail her life and deport her relatives, alluding to a brush she had with the law before her marriage. He summoned her to a private meeting. And at noon on Dec. 21, in a parked car on Queens Boulevard, he named his price — not realizing that she was recording everything on the cellphone in her purse.

“I want sex,” he said on the recording. “One or two times. That’s all. You get your green card. You won’t have to see me anymore.”

She reluctantly agreed to a future meeting. But when she tried to leave his car, he demanded oral sex “now,” to “know that you’re serious.” And despite her protests, she said, he got his way.

The 16-minute recording, which the woman first took to The New York Times and then to the Queens district attorney, suggests the vast power of low-level immigration law enforcers, and a growing desperation on the part of immigrants seeking legal status. The aftermath, which included the arrest of an immigration agent last week, underscores the difficulty and danger of making a complaint, even in the rare case when abuse of power may have been caught on tape.

No one knows how widespread sexual blackmail is, but the case echoes other instances of sexual coercion that have surfaced in recent years, including agents criminally charged in Atlanta, Miami and Santa Ana, Calif. And it raises broader questions about the system’s vulnerability to corruption at a time when millions of noncitizens live in a kind of legal no-man’s land, increasingly fearful of seeking the law’s protection.

The agent arrested last week, Isaac R. Baichu, 46, himself an immigrant from Guyana, handled some 8,000 green card applications during his three years as an adjudicator in the Garden City, N.Y., office of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the federal Department of Homeland Security. He pleaded not guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges of coercing the young woman to perform oral sex, and of promising to help her secure immigration papers in exchange for further sexual favors. If convicted, he will face up to seven years in prison.

His agency has suspended him with pay, and the inspector general of Homeland Security is reviewing his other cases, a spokesman said Wednesday. Prosecutors, who say they recorded a meeting between Mr. Baichu and the woman on March 11 at which he made similar demands for sex, urge any other victims to come forward.

Money, not sex, is the more common currency of corruption in immigration, but according to Congressional testimony in 2006 by Michael Maxwell, former director of the agency’s internal investigations, more than 3,000 backlogged complaints of employee misconduct had gone uninvestigated for lack of staff, including 528 involving criminal allegations.

The agency says it has tripled its investigative staff since then, and counts only 165 serious complaints pending. But it stopped posting an e-mail address and phone number for such complaints last year, said Jan Lane, chief of security and integrity, because it lacks the staff to cull the thousands of mostly irrelevant messages that resulted. Immigrants, she advised, should report wrongdoing to any law enforcement agency they trust.

The young woman in Queens, whose name is being withheld because the authorities consider her the victim of a sex crime, did not even tell her husband what had happened. Two weeks after the meeting in the car, finding no way to make a confidential complaint to the immigration agency and afraid to go to the police, she and two older female relatives took the recording to The Times.

Reasons to Worry

A slim, shy woman who looks like a teenager, she said she had spent recent months baby-sitting for relatives in Queens, crying over the deaths of her two brothers back in Cali, Colombia, and longing for the right stamp in her passport — one that would let her return to the United States if she visited her family.

She came to the United States on a tourist visa in 2004 and overstayed. When she married an American citizen a year ago, the law allowed her to apply to “adjust” her illegal status. But unless her green card application was approved, she could not visit her parents or her brothers’ graves and then legally re-enter the United States. And if her application was denied, she would face deportation.

She had another reason to be fearful, and not only for herself. About 15 months ago, she said, an acquaintance hired her and two female relatives in New York to carry $12,000 in cash to the bank. The three women, all living in the country illegally, were arrested on the street by customs officers apparently acting on a tip in a money-laundering investigation. After determining that the women had no useful information, the officers released them.

But the closed investigation file had showed up in the computer when she applied for a green card, Mr. Baichu told her in December; until he obtained the file and dealt with it, her application would not be approved. If she defied him, she feared, he could summon immigration enforcement agents to take her relatives to detention.

So instead of calling the police, she turned on the video recorder in her cellphone, put the phone in her purse and walked to meet the agent. Two family members said they watched anxiously from their parked car as she disappeared behind the tinted windows of his red Lexus.

“We were worried that the guy would take off, take her away and do something to her,” the woman’s widowed sister-in-law said in Spanish.

As the recorder captured the agent’s words and a lilting Guyanese accent, he laid out his terms in an easy, almost paternal style. He would not ask too much, he said: sex “once or twice,” visits to his home in the Bronx, perhaps a link to other Colombians who needed his help with their immigration problems.

In shaky English, the woman expressed reluctance, and questioned how she could be sure he would keep his word.

“If I do it, it’s like very hard for me, because I have my husband, and I really fall in love with him,” she said.

The agent insisted that she had to trust him. “I wouldn’t ask you to do something for me if I can’t do something for you, right?” he said, and reasoned, “Nobody going to help you for nothing,” noting that she had no money.

He described himself as the single father of a 10-year-old daughter, telling her, “I need love, too,” and predicting, “You will get to like me because I’m a nice guy.”

Repeatedly, she responded “O.K.,” without conviction. At one point he thanked her for showing up, saying, “I know you feel very scared.”

Finally, she tried to leave. “Let me go because I tell my husband I come home,” she said.

His reply, the recording shows, was a blunt demand for oral sex.

“Right now? No!” she protested. “No, no, right now I can’t.”

He insisted, cajoled, even empathized. “I came from a different country, too,” he said. “I got my green card just like you.”

Then, she said, he grabbed her. During the speechless minute that follows on the recording, she said she yielded to his demand out of fear that he would use his authority against her.

How Much Corruption?

The charges against Mr. Baichu, who became a United States citizen in 1991 and earns roughly $50,000 a year, appear to be part of a larger pattern, according to government records and interviews.

Mr. Maxwell, the immigration agency’s former chief investigator, told Congress in 2006 that internal corruption was “rampant,” and that employees faced constant temptations to commit crime.

“It is only a small step from granting a discretionary waiver of an eligibility rule to asking for a favor or taking a bribe in exchange for granting that waiver,” he contended. “Once an employee learns he can get away with low-level corruption and still advance up the ranks, he or she becomes more brazen.”

Mr. Maxwell’s own deputy, Lloyd W. Miner, 49, of Hyattsville, Md., turned out to be an example. He was sentenced March 7 to a year in prison for inducing a 21-year-old Mongolian woman to stay in the country illegally, and harboring her in his house.

Other cases include that of a 60-year-old immigration adjudicator in Santa Ana, Calif., who was charged with demanding sexual favors from a 29-year-old Vietnamese woman in exchange for approving her citizenship application. The agent, Eddie Romualdo Miranda, was acquitted of a felony sexual battery charge last August, but pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to probation.

In Atlanta, another adjudicator, Kelvin R. Owens, was convicted in 2005 of sexually assaulting a 45-year-old woman during her citizenship interview in the federal building, and sentenced to weekends in jail for six months. And a Miami agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement responsible for transporting a Haitian woman to detention is awaiting trial on charges that he took her to his home and raped her.

“Despite our best efforts there are always people ready to use their position for personal gain or personal pleasure,” said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Our responsibility is to ferret them out.”

When the Queens woman came to The Times with her recording on Jan. 3, she was afraid of retaliation from the agent, and uncertain about making a criminal complaint, though she had an appointment the next day at the Queens district attorney’s office.

She followed through, however, and Carmencita Gutierrez, an assistant district attorney, began monitoring phone calls between the agent and the young woman, a spokesman said. When Mr. Baichu arranged to meet the woman on March 11 at the Flagship Restaurant on Queens Boulevard, investigators were ready.

In the conversation recorded there, according to the criminal complaint, Mr. Baichu told her he expected her to do “just like the last time,” and offered to take her to a garage or the bathroom of a friend’s real estate business so she would be “more comfortable doing it” there.

Mr. Baichu was arrested as he emerged from the diner and headed to his car, wearing much gold and diamond jewelry, prosecutors said. Later released on $15,000 bail, Mr. Baichu referred calls for comment to his lawyer, Sally Attia, who said he did not have authority to grant or deny green card petitions without his supervisor’s approval.

The young woman’s ordeal is not over. Her husband overheard her speaking about it to a cousin about a month ago, and she had to tell him the whole story, she said.

“He was so mad at me, he left my house,” she said, near tears. “I don’t know if he’s going to come back.”

The green card has not come through. “I’m still hoping,” she said.

Angelica Medaglia contributed reporting.
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