By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In October 2003, Isenberg learned that Nicole's teenage daughter was coming to visit from China. "I was a little worried," Isenberg says. "Am I getting more than I bargained for?" But in November 2003, Isenberg flew to Japan, met a lovely 13-year-old who spoke not a word of English and accompanied her to Dallas.
On the morning of December 17, 2003, Isenberg and Nicole got in their respective cars to run errands. Nicole had to visit the immigration office to renew her work permit. She didn't come home.
When he saw Nicole in an orange jumpsuit behind glass, Isenberg began to cry.
Isenberg had driven to the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, 200 miles northwest of Dallas, where non-citizens are housed in preparation for deportation. At home, he had a distraught teenager who spoke no English and wanted her mother.
Earlier that month, Isenberg had called immigration's automated 800 number to check on the status of her case and was alarmed to learn then about the deportation order issued on May 8, 2001. How was that possible? In early 2002, Nicole had been granted advance permission to travel to China to visit her sick mother for a month. The document was valid for a year and allowed her multiple re-entries. She left on January 17, 2002, and returned a month later through customs in LAX.
Nicole had retained Dallas attorney Jerry Goh; someone at his office checked and assured them that the asylum case had been closed, and the order was no longer valid. But when Nicole appeared at the immigration office, she was taken into custody.
After sorting through papers obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Isenberg believed her detention all came down to a piece of misdirected mail and a misdemeanor conviction that he likens to a traffic ticket. In the arcane world of immigration law, however, nothing is that simple, especially when the "ticket" is for prostitution.
Immigration records show that Nicole first arrived at LAX on December 25, 1999, admitted on a visitor's visa until January 23, 2000. She hired a Los Angeles attorney to prepare papers requesting asylum, giving her address as Monterey Park, California. The application bought her six months. On July 24, 2000, Nicole attended her asylum interview, telling her story in Mandarin through an interpreter.
Her statement and documents translated from Chinese show that after getting married for the first time in 1985, Nicole earned a three-year degree in mechanical engineering from a college of "iron and steel science" and went to work as a technician in a factory.
Three months after giving birth to a daughter in 1990, Nicole says she was forced by her employer to get an IUD. Plagued by uterine problems, she secretly had it removed but was caught and forced to submit to another insertion or leave her job.
To cope, in 1994, while studying for a degree in architectural engineering, Nicole began delving into the principles of Falun Gong and became accomplished enough to teach others. Nicole told her interviewer that the day after the Chinese government announced that Falun Gong was prohibited, she went with others to a park to practice their meditation. She was arrested and taken to jail, where she was beaten by other inmates. After signing a statement that she would no longer practice Falun Gong, Nicole was released, then fired. Divorced from her husband, Nicole decided to leave China.
Nicole would later receive a document explaining that her asylum claim was deemed "not credible" because of "material inconsistencies within your testimony" and "lack of details on material points." Nicole gave some answers that didn't match those in her written statement:
"You testified that the Chinese police did not interrogate you in the morning before you were released. However, you stated in your sworn statement that the police charged you with committing crime in teaching Falun Gong and forced you to confess to the charges on the morning of July 24, 2000. You also failed to explain in detail how Falun Gong improves health." A week later, Nicole learned her asylum claim was rejected; she filed an appeal.
After Nicole got married again in the United States, her California attorney wrote the immigration court requesting a change of venue, giving Nicole's address on Travis Street in Dallas and the name of her new attorney, Jerry Goh. The change of venue was granted.
But in the meantime, the Los Angeles immigration court had issued a notice for Nicole to appear at a removal hearing in early 2001 because she had overstayed her visa. She contends she never received the notice; sent by certified mail to her California address, the receipt is marked "unclaimed."
Goh submitted the "immediate relative" petition in Rogers' court for Nicole and her daughter and was told in writing that the asylum case was closed. The lawyer would later sign an affidavit saying he had no knowledge of the deportation order. (Goh did not return phone calls.)
On May 8, 2001, after Nicole failed to attend a removal hearing in Dallas, Rogers ordered that she be deported in absentia. The document sat in a file, ticking like a time bomb, going unnoticed even when Nicole's daughter arrived in November 2003 as a legal resident.