By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Like all the other guests invited to Mayor Laura Miller's black-tie fundraiser, Ralph Isenberg and his girlfriend left their car in a parking lot and boarded a DART bus. Though both were underdressed for the occasion, Miller had invited them at the last minute, and Isenberg wanted her to get to know the new love in his life.
Not only was Miller one of his best friends, the mayor had propelled the wealthy property manager into the public eye by appointing him to several city boards. In 2000, Miller and Isenberg had fought together, raising money to save an aging city swimming pool in Oak Cliff, where both lived. The campaign was instrumental in positioning Miller as a populist in her first race for mayor.
On the park board, Isenberg built a reputation as a maverick in Miller's mold, often on the losing side of 12-1 and 14-1 votes. Prickly, blunt and emotional, Isenberg came off as eccentric, once aggravating a homeowner in Oak Cliff by sending out his employees to paint over gang graffiti on her property without asking her permission. But his commitment to improving Dallas south of the Trinity River was unquestioned.
Isenberg's close ties with many of Dallas' wealthiest business and civic leaders like Pryor Blackwell, Trammell Crow and Norman Brinker gave him a quiet kind of clout. His associates might think Isenberg was sometimes zany--like when he pulled out a pack of tarot cards in a business meeting to "read" the outcome of Jerry Jones' quest for a new Cowboys stadium--but he had an instinct for good deals.
The couple stepped off the bus at the entrance to the palatial mansion of Fred Baron and Lisa Blue, who'd become extremely wealthy through asbestos litigation. Inside, a woman operating the check-in table sized them up: the pale, pear-shaped man with wire-rim glasses on a dumpling face and, on his arm, the beautiful Chinese woman with high cheekbones, red lips and long black hair.
"I've got blue jeans on, and Nicole's schlepping," Isenberg recalls. "The lady was horrified when we came in the door."
The greeter noted their names weren't on the list as paying guests. "Just tell the mayor Ralph's here," Isenberg insisted. Minutes later, the couple was ushered into a private area to meet with Miller, who hugged Isenberg and warmly greeted his paramour.
Miller had learned about the love affair months after Isenberg fell hard for Nicole--Chinese name Hu Yanhong. Miller had met her at a neighborhood store soon after Isenberg's wife of 30 years moved out of their Kessler Park home and Nicole moved in. But Isenberg was insistent--some would say pushy--about bringing his lover into his posh world, taking Nicole to the symphony, to the wedding of Trammell Crow Jr., to a civic event with Rudy Giuliani.
No one who saw Nicole would have ever guessed her secret. She looked like a well-groomed Dallas housewife who happened to be Chinese. A few confidants knew the truth: She had been a "masseuse" in a local bathhouse when she and Isenberg met. But even those insiders didn't know Nicole had been convicted of prostitution.
And neither Isenberg nor Nicole realized there was a document sitting in a court file ordering her deportation back to China. When that document surfaced, Isenberg's love for Nicole would lead him to wage war on the federal government, a federal magistrate with a questionable reputation and a Texas prison where illegal immigrants are held--anything to keep his beloved pretty woman by his side.
Nicole had come to the United States on Christmas Day in 1999 on a short-term visa and had been trying ever since to become a permanent resident, first by requesting asylum based on her practice of the banned Falun Gong movement, then on the basis of her marriage to a Taiwanese man who had become a U.S. citizen.
Isenberg's friends told him that Nicole was just using him, a belief reinforced in late 2003 when she was arrested and sent to a detention center for deportation. After 9/11, immigrants who overstayed their visas weren't cut much slack.
Nicole's incarceration triggered a battle royal between Isenberg and a division of Homeland Security with the James Bond-worthy acronym ICE--Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the process, Isenberg initiated media and government investigations of the detention center. Then he took on Immigration Judge D. Anthony Rogers.
ICE general counsel Paul Hunker, inundated with letters of support for Nicole from prominent business and political leaders, including Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson and Pete Sessions and the entire Dallas City Council, has criticized Isenberg for using his wealth and influence to thwart immigration law. In a public statement, Hunker has called Nicole's "one of the most egregious cases of immigration fraud" he's seen in 12 years. Judge Rogers accused Isenberg of trying to kill him and threatened to throttle him if they were ever in the same room.
Isenberg feared that once Nicole was deported, she wouldn't be allowed back into the United States for 10 years--and perhaps never. He managed to win Nicole's release and extensions from the government, but his tactics alienated the decision-makers even as the stakes had risen: Nicole was now his wife and the mother of his adoptive daughter and newborn baby.
As the clock ticked toward August 15, 2005, the day Nicole would be deported, he turned to the press. In August, when Isenberg, 53, announced that he was going on a hunger strike in an effort to keep his new family together, parts of the bizarre story tumbled out in The Dallas Morning News.
Isenberg's public confession that he had spent a million dollars on wining and dining women before he fell in love with Nicole, now 40, unleashed a torrent of bad press, including angry public statements by his two estranged daughters that he hadn't been much of a family man when they were growing up.
The story appeared soon after Isenberg had called for the resignation of D'Angelo Lee--at the center of the FBI's investigation into corruption at City Hall--from the city Plan Commission. While remaining a staunch supporter, Isenberg says, Miller asked for his resignation from the Plan Commission. Though hurt, he complied.
In a last-ditch attempt to stave off the inevitable, the Isenbergs packed their bags and moved to New York City, where yet another immigration lawyer has taken up their battle. The story hit the New York Post as well as Chinese newspapers, with a photo of the couple and a headline calling Isenberg "China's son-in-law." The story had gone global.
How Isenberg--a Jewish nebbish with a savior complex--became China's son-in-law is a tale about the American dream as filtered through pre- and post-9/11 immigration law, where the right hand of "homeland security" may have no idea what the left hand is doing, a shocking indictment of a system supposed to protect the nation from terrorists entering the United States.
Or maybe it's just a story about lust, love and a leap of faith.
Walking through the commercial space at Preston Center in search of a new location for their hair salon in 1989, Alan and Sally Stone had very different reactions to Ralph Isenberg, the leasing manager. "He was very abusive and rude," says Alan, an Englishman who has lived in Dallas 25 years. As they left the building, Sally turned to her husband and said, "That's the most obnoxious man I've ever met."
Alan saw through Isenberg's act. "It's all fake," he told Sally. "I can do business with this guy."
After they signed the deal, Isenberg and his wife Mary invited the Stones to dinner at Baby Routh's, then one of Dallas' premier restaurants. Well-traveled and cosmopolitan, the Stones had little in common with the Isenbergs, both from the Midwest. The Stones had lots of friends; the Isenbergs rarely socialized. The Stones didn't have kids; the Isenbergs had two daughters, one in college and the other in high school. The Stones lived in East Dallas; the Isenbergs lived in DeSoto, their new home decorated with furniture from college.
Isenberg and Mary couldn't have been more different from the Stones or from each other. They'd met in college and had spent most of their marriage moving, living in 13 states in 14 years while Isenberg worked in the hotel business. A beautiful woman with curly red hair, Mary was introverted, Isenberg loud and wacky. Well-read, Mary could talk about anything but held her feelings close to the vest; Isenberg blurted out his innermost thoughts. He loved to socialize; Mary hated it.
But something magical happened during the dinner. The two couples hit it off. The four became each other's best friends, even taking weekend trips together.
To Alan, who calls himself "a ya-ya sister" because he has mostly female friends, Isenberg was funny, smart and never predictable. "He likes to push your buttons," Alan says. When the foursome got together, Sally says, "we would laugh and tell stories and do silly, silly things. It brought Mary out."
The Isenbergs had moved to Dallas in 1985, when Isenberg went into property management as leasing manager for a shopping center in Oak Cliff. His business took off in the '90s as he got into real estate development with the likes of Norman Brinker. Isenberg's business manner was unconventional, to say the least; he'd invite lessees to roll a big cup of dice he kept in his office to settle arguments over terms. But he was also shrewd, a problem-solver who knew how to maneuver among city bureaucrats. The Isenbergs moved to Oak Cliff in the mid-'90s, joining art and civic groups.
By 2000, according to tax records, Isenberg was making $500,000 a year.
The Stones discovered Isenberg also gave away a lot of money. A sucker for sob stories, crises and the down-and-out, Isenberg would write a check without asking anything in return. "In some sense, Ralph doesn't blow his own horn," Alan says. "He solves a lot of people's problems. He does things out of his heart."
And out of identification with the downtrodden and persecuted. Though not an observant Jew, his family's experience in the Holocaust profoundly affected his life. Members of one city board were surprised when, before a vote, Isenberg talked about his Jewish parents who'd escaped from Nazi Germany and those in his family who perished. "It was out of left field," one board member says.
At times, Isenberg's sometimes self-righteous do-good-ism got in the way of his head, as when he went on a graffiti-scrubbing binge in Oak Cliff and ran awry of a homeowner who didn't appreciate the unasked-for coat of green paint on her garage. Even the Dallas Observer applauded his willingness to roll up his sleeves and do something about graffiti instead of just talking about it. Isenberg sent the Observer five gallons of pea-green paint, offended that everybody couldn't see that his intentions were pure.
With their success, Mary and Ralph began taking long, exotic trips to places like Vietnam and Morocco. Mary planned them, and Ralph wrote the checks. Isenberg had gotten into photography, posting his travel pictures on the Internet. But he says that at the most remote point of each trip, Mary would announce she wanted a divorce. She didn't follow through, but the threat hovered over the rest of the vacation. (Mary Isenberg did not return phone calls for this story.)
As their affluence grew, the fundamental differences in their personalities seemed wider than ever. Now hobnobbing with political and civic leaders, Isenberg wanted to enjoy his wealth, to host dinner parties, to shop, to attend galas. Mary, a down-to-earth woman who favors jeans and T-shirts, hated shopping, and the only people she wanted to socialize with in their home were the Stones. Isenberg decorated their house with bright colors, modern art and glass sculpture. Mary thought he had terrible taste and told him so.
The biggest conflict was even more fundamental: Isenberg was emotional, romantic and craved intimacy. After work, he'd see Mary reading on the couch and would plop down with his head in her lap. "Did I ask you to do that?" she'd say. "The couch is big enough for both of us."
In one of his hypochondria attacks, Isenberg took Mary to the doctor with him. Asked by the physician what she thought was wrong with her husband, Mary replied, "Oh, he's fucking nuts."
Alan and Sally had to admit she had a point. "He's an obsessive-compulsive character," Alan says. "There's a crazy side of Ralph. You can get worn down by that." Six years ago, Alan Stone says, he got a call from a distraught Isenberg. "I've lost my family," he moaned. "I've lost my kids emotionally. I don't know what to do." Isenberg felt like his wife and daughters were taking sides against him whenever conflict erupted. His oldest daughter wasn't speaking to him because of the way Isenberg handled a crisis involving another family member. In therapy, taking medication for depression, Ralph begged Mary to attend marriage counseling. She refused.
In late 2002, Alan sat Sally down and told her Isenberg was having an affair.
When he first laid eyes on her in August 2002, Hu Yanhong--who took the name Nicole because it means success--was dressed like a professional masseuse, wearing little makeup, with her thick, long black hair pulled back. When she smiled and greeted him, it was clear that she didn't speak much English. And she was 37, no nubile babe. But Isenberg was so smitten that he leaped up from the massage table and danced her around the room.
"She was absolutely charming," Isenberg says. "I felt an immediate closeness. I felt something wonderful inside."
He admits they met at a bathhouse, where men could negotiate for sex as well as massages. He will not identify the establishment. Isenberg says he'd been getting massages--not sex--from another woman who worked there. He knows that people might not buy that but insists that what he wanted was far harder to find than sex. He longed for companionship, fun, romance.
"Did I go there with the intention or thought that I would have sex with her?" Isenberg says. "The answer is absolutely not. I went there with the intention to get a nice massage. I didn't go there for a hand job or a blow job or to get laid. I wanted a nice, soft massage."
He was looking for another kind of relief. Seven years earlier, after the Isenbergs returned from a trip to Peru, Isenberg began chatting with women on AOL. Then 46, Isenberg felt lonely and miserable. "You have no idea how weird it was typing out messages and trying to find someone to take me out of my pain."
Isenberg started perusing dating sites, arranging to meet women in other cities when he traveled. They'd go to fine restaurants, museums and jazz bars and maybe indulge in a bit of fantasy, which Isenberg insists most often didn't include sex. But reality sometimes intruded.
Like the time Isenberg invited a woman from Florida to meet him in Chicago and re-enact the movie Pretty Woman, where Richard Gere plays a rich businessman and Julia Roberts plays the troubled hooker he transforms into an elegant lady.
The woman showed up at the airport wearing short-shorts. The moment she opened her mouth, Isenberg thought, "Uh-oh." In her mid 30s, the woman was attractive but rough. She needed Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady to tone down the twang and slang.
Isenberg says everybody in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel stared as his companion "wiggled" her way across the lobby. He'd made reservations for dinner at a top-notch restaurant, but when he asked what she'd brought to wear, she pulled out a uniform for a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. He said, "We're going shopping."
In the elevator down, Isenberg asked his date to tone down her wiggle. She must have taken offense because "she danced across the lobby."
While shopping, Miss Florida gravitated to provocative clothes. Isenberg dragged her to a women's store, grabbed the manager and asked for a saleswoman to pull together some nice outfits.
A few minutes later, the saleswoman emerged laughing. His date had on no panties. "Can someone go to Marshall Fields and get her some underwear?" Isenberg asked.
When the woman emerged from the dressing room, she looked at herself in the mirror and burst into tears. "She looked so beautiful," Isenberg says. After a fast dash through a hair salon, his date had turned into Pretty Woman.
The fantasy didn't last. Though dinner at the restaurant was fabulous, Isenberg says that when they went to a jazz bar, someone slipped him a "mickey." He passed out and ended up getting carted to his hotel room in a luggage cart.
Through the Internet, Isenberg met a few women who became friends. There were a few sexual relationships. But Isenberg tried to save them, too, giving one woman the tuition for nursing school and another funds for an operation.
Every night for over a year, he'd call Alan to confess and obsess about his marriage, his guilt and his fears. "Everything he did with the ladies and the money had nothing to do with sex," Alan says. "It was about cuddling and touching and embracing."
When Isenberg met Nicole, the one-hour massage turned into a three-hour massage. "I started opening up," Isenberg says. "I told her my whole life history. She didn't understand a blooming word of it."
He returned to the bathhouse two or three times and requested Nicole. Then he invited her for a meal. "Was I paying for the company at this point?" Isenberg says. "Yes. I'm not going to lie to you. But it wasn't equivalent as far as time."
On their first real date, Isenberg took her bungee-jumping, something he'd never done. "She allowed me to be a kid." Soon Isenberg was enrolling her in community college to learn English, taking her to fine restaurants, flying off for the weekend.
But Nicole continued working at the bathhouse. She confided to Isenberg that her American dream had turned into a nightmare. She'd come to the United States seeking political asylum on two grounds: persecution because she practiced Falun Gong and health problems from an intrauterine device imposed by Chinese authorities after the birth of her first daughter, in keeping with the country's "one child" policy. More than anything, Nicole wanted freedom from government-imposed rules controlling her mind and body.
While waiting for approval, Nicole said she'd worked for slave wages as a waitress in six different restaurants. After she married a chef who was a naturalized citizen, Nicole withdrew the asylum petition and submitted an "immediate relative" application for permanent residency. It was simpler and also included her daughter. But immigration was backlogged, and Nicole still hadn't gotten the interview for the immediate relative petition.
Meanwhile, her marriage was disintegrating, Nicole claimed, because her husband was a drinker and a gambler. To her shame, Nicole had taken classes in massage only to end up working at a bathhouse to survive.
Isenberg says Nicole told him she provided massages but not sex. "And I believe her," he says. In December 2002, Isenberg insisted she quit her job. He'd take care of her from now on.
Beauty and the Beast
They arrived at the Stones' house in Rockwall in evening wear, dropping by on the way to a high-society wedding. Isenberg had on a tux, and Nicole wore a red strapless cocktail dress. Sally felt uncomfortable. But Isenberg was insistent on integrating Nicole into the life he'd once led with Mary.
Mary, who had no clue what was going on, had learned of the affair through a family member. Angry and humiliated by Ralph's behavior, Mary filed for divorce and moved to Minnesota to live near one of their daughters. But the division of their estate was swift and amicable considering the circumstances and the size of their assets.
The Stones couldn't help but worry about Isenberg. Was it a mid-life crisis? Male menopause? They feared that Nicole was exploiting their friend, a feeling reinforced by Isenberg calling Sally from expensive shops.
"I'm here picking out clothes for Nicole, and it's fun," he'd say. "We're closing the store down." Her doubts grew when Isenberg called from the Rolex shop where Nicole picked out a watch. Then it was a silver Mercedes.
Far from feeling used, Isenberg was having the time of his life. Even before news of their relationship leaked out, Isenberg had taken Nicole to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the bow of the ferry they re-enacted the "flying" scene between Titanic's Jack and Rose. "That was so cool," Isenberg says. "She'd seen the movie in Chinese. She made me feel alive."
At Ellis, Isenberg bought Nicole a spot on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor next to the one he'd purchased to honor his parents. Isenberg equated Nicole's struggle with that earlier wave of immigrants fleeing religious persecution.
The Stones and other friends had to agree that Isenberg seemed happier than he'd been in years--energetic and full of life. Even his hypochondria diminished. As they got to know Nicole, her affection for Isenberg was evident. Soon he was talking about getting married immediately after their divorces were finalized.
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.
But another document would prove much more damaging.
On Form I-485, a petition document which Nicole contends attorney Goh completed without talking to her, he ticked off "no" in the boxes that asked if she had committed any crime of "moral turpitude," violated any law or ordinance (excluding traffic violations) or within the past 10 years had been a prostitute or intended to engage in such activities in the future.
Dallas police records tell a different story.
In December 2000, detective Timothy Prokof placed a call to a number he found on page 140 of the Dallas Observer: "Chinese Barbie: Full body rubs by young Chinese lady. Soft touch, nice music. Two ladies available. I will make you relax completely." A phone number was listed. In an affidavit for an arrest warrant, Prokof said he'd responded to the ad in the past and found it to be a front for prostitution.
When Prokof called, a woman answered the phone, said the massage would be $60 and gave directions to an apartment off the LBJ Freeway east of Preston Road. With Prokof waiting in the car, undercover detective Frank Plaster knocked and was greeted by a Chinese woman with long black hair, "the suspect," who motioned to a massage table, gestured for him to lie down and began massaging his shoulders. According to the affidavit, the exchange went like this:
"You been here before?" the Chinese woman asked.
"No," Plaster replied.
"Yeah...Do I need to pay you?"
As she continued the massage, the woman seemed to get suspicious.
"You police? You don't say anything?"
"What you want? I will make you come...$100." She held up her index finger.
"Is that in addition to the $60?"
The detective sat up. "I have to go...I'm married."
"Oh...you a good husband."
"Yeah. I feel bad."
"It's OK, let me make you come."
"No, I can't."
Plaster then pulled out his badge. The affidavit says Prokof came in and identified Hu Yanhong--Nicole--then they left.
Nicole told Isenberg about the ticket but insisted that she didn't offer sex and that the officer said he was charging her for giving massages without a license. But on January 11, 2001, Nicole received a citation for misdemeanor prostitution. She pleaded no contest and received a $500 fine and deferred adjudication, meaning it would be wiped off her record after five months' probation.
The conviction didn't necessarily prevent Nicole from becoming a U.S. resident. But ICE concluded she'd committed fraud by lying about the offense on the immigration petition and for other inconsistencies on various documents. Rogers ruled that the deportation order had been executed when Nicole "self-deported" to visit her mother, and he had no jurisdiction over the case. But the judge then suggested a strategy to the prosecutors: Open a new case against Nicole on the basis of the fraud allegations. That made her a new illegal arrival and ineligible for bail. ICE complied.
Absence of Malice
Judge Rogers glared from his bench at Ralph Isenberg and WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Brett Shipp. In a 15-minute harangue about media interest in the prison and his court, Rogers demanded to know what Shipp was doing there.
After his tirade, Rogers announced that the January 26, 2004, hearing scheduled for the case of Hu Yanhong--present in the federal courtroom by TV monitor--was being postponed because Isenberg had threatened the judge's life.
"I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Shipp says. "[Rogers] was trying to intimidate me. I've never seen Ralph so petrified. He thought he was going to be incarcerated." All this, Isenberg says, simply for exposing wrongdoing. He was never charged with a crime.
Each time he went to Haskell, Isenberg had learned more about conditions Nicole and other detainees were enduring. Male inmates weren't separated from the women, who were subjected to taunts and lewdness. The facility was overcrowded and under-heated; Nicole resorted to filling bottles with hot water and sleeping with them for warmth. The prison didn't supply sanitary napkins, toilet paper or soap. Each inmate was supposed to be given a handbook of prison rules and a list of items they could purchase from the commissary. But they had no handbooks in Chinese; Nicole was given a Spanish handbook instead.
Isenberg ran up a $5,000 bill through the facility's phone system that charges inmates exorbitant rates. He called the prison once and sometimes twice a day demanding better food, medical care and other improvements in Nicole's treatment. Though shunned by some friends and business associates, Isenberg was unable to back off, to ignore what he believed were violations of human rights. Isenberg began taking sworn statements from former prison employees. All the while, prison officials were monitoring his phone conversations with Nicole.
Judge Rogers had rebuffed Isenberg's efforts to get Nicole released. Isenberg had appeared in his court without an attorney and asked for leniency. The judge had listened, then talked to an ICE prosecutor and set bond at $325,000, telling Isenberg the government deemed Nicole a flight risk, and "there's a lot you don't know about your girlfriend."
Then Isenberg discovered Rogers had been the subject a year earlier of a scathing story in the Baltimore Sun that painted the judge as a money-grubbing influence-peddler.
"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.
"I have never seen anyone in the entire country go to the extent of Judge Rogers in sticking it to aliens and their attorneys," says Cox, an immigration law professor.
The Isenbergs have filed a lawsuit against one of Nicole's former attorneys for conceding the prostitution conviction without talking to her and have lodged various complaints against government officials, including Judge Rogers and Hunker, for talking about her case publicly. Isenberg posted it all on a Web site called meltICE.net, detailing their "fight to keep their family together."
It's easy to imagine Judge Rogers, Hunker and other immigration officials reading Isenberg's screed and pulling out their hair.
For now, the Isenbergs have bought time. There is no warrant for Nicole's immediate arrest and deportation. Cox says the effort could drag out for years.
Isenberg has spent more than $200,000 to keep Nicole in the country and is willing to spend whatever it takes. "I'm so in love with my wife and my family, I wouldn't trade places with anybody."
He's found his pretty woman.