By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"A federal immigration judge who presides over sensitive visa and deportation cases sought a financial partnership with a Virginia firm whose clients could end up before him in court, according to a tape recording seized in a government raid," wrote Walter F. Roche Jr., a Sunstaffer. But Rogers allegedly wanted a heftier fee than was being offered.
"Let me go ahead and just be as abrupt as I can about it," Rogers said on the tape, made in 1998 by his potential partners, fearing they were being set up. "If you think for some reason or other I am going to bring you $30 million worth of potential investors for a $20,000-a-head pop, I'm not interested in doing that. I'm not that dumb." The rest of the story outlined potential conflicts of interest and business associations with people who had appeared before the judge in court.
The secret tape triggered an investigation of Rogers by the administrative judge, who later wrote Rogers that he had been accused of "maintaining an ongoing outside business relationship with an immigration practitioner, failing to report involvement in an outside business venture, failure to notify the court of an immigration lawyer's disqualification and failing to report a gift from a prohibited source."
On June 11, 2002, Chief Immigration Judge Michael J. Creppy issued a letter saying that Rogers had engaged in the improper conduct and "your actions reflected negatively on you as an immigration judge." For actions that would have gotten a state district judge crucified, Creppy issued Rogers a slap on the wrist: a seven-day suspension without pay.
Isenberg took his material to Shipp, who declined to pursue it because of their friendship. But then Shipp was approached with similar allegations from a different source and began investigating. He did a series of stories on severe overcrowding and cruel punishment at Haskell, showing how numerous detainees were being held without bond for months while fighting charges of immigration violations, sometimes for things as minor as traffic tickets.
"Ralph was an absolute bulldog," says Shipp, who did not include Nicole's story in the series. "This was a courageous stand."
When Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones called Rogers to say Isenberg regretted some of his actions on Nicole's behalf and requested a "clear-the-air" meeting, Rogers complained he had to spend $20,000 to ward off Shipp and his producer because of Isenberg. When that comment surfaced publicly, Rogers wrote a letter to Jones accusing Isenberg of "abusive bullying tactics in trying to harm me and my family...I think I told you candidly my extreme dislike for the man and that, in another world and another time, I would enjoy giving in to the temptation to have a physical confrontation with this nasty, unstable bully who uses money instead of muscle to get his way."
Supporters were later told that Isenberg's bull-in-a-china-shop tactics had so alienated ICE and Judge Rogers that they had taken a hard line on Nicole's case. But ICE finally agreed to a $50,000 bond with the agreement that Nicole would depart the country within 60 days, then re-apply in China to return.
After spending 52 days in confinement, Nicole was released in mid-February. "I don't know anyone else who ever got out of Haskell," Isenberg says. On March 13, three days after their respective divorces were finalized, Isenberg married Nicole. Despite advice from friends, he refused to ask her to sign a pre-nuptial agreement.
But had Isenberg sealed Nicole's fate by his crusade?
Love and Marriage
After Isenberg adopted Nicole's daughter, the couple decided they wanted a child of their own. Born in July, Niraya was conceived and delivered against the odds. Nicole is now 40, and several surgeries for cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition, made her pregnancy high-risk.
It was also, as one ICE official remarked, "very convenient."
Dressed in black capris and a knit top, Nicole wears her hair pulled back with a headband and looks much younger than her age. She sits at the black marble dining room table in the Isenbergs' home, where the modern art and glass collected by Isenberg has been overrun by Chinese figurines and kitsch of every sort. It's a messy, vibrant space filled with baby paraphernalia and the sound of Nicole's older daughter upstairs practicing a classical piece on the piano. Nicole seems like a serene island in happy chaos.
Nicole refuses to talk about "personal matters," saying that Chinese people consider details about their families, their jobs and their troubles private. She's also still unsure of her English and doesn't want to be misunderstood by a reporter.
Since her release from Haskell, Nicole has received extension after extension from ICE, first for health concerns and then for her pregnancy and delivery. Isenberg sent her to a therapist who diagnosed Nicole as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, the government drew a line in the sand: Nicole had to leave by August 15.
So Isenberg and Nicole fled to New York and rented an apartment. They are now seeking both asylum and an "adjustment of status" based on their marriage through the New York immigration office, with the help of Ted Cox, an attorney who speaks Mandarin.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city