NEW YORK - One of the nation's largest immigration asylum law firms was accused of working hand in hand with smugglers who bring illegal Chinese immigrants to the United States and keep them as virtual indentured servants.
The relationship earned the Porges law firm more than $13 million illicitly over the last seven years, federal prosecutors alleged Wednesday in the first racketeering case of its kind.
''Manhattan attorneys in three-piece suits do not typically come to mind when the public pictures the criminals who traffic in human cargo and who profit in the desperation of migrants who are seeking a better life,'' said Doris Meissner, Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner.
The case illustrated the kind of ''well organized, well planned international enterprises that have become a multibillion dollar problem,'' Meissner said.
The smugglers, known as snakeheads, charged desperate aliens $40,000 to $50,000 to sneak them into the country, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White said.
When authorities captured the aliens, the law firm made up stories for each one to qualify for asylum, authorities said. Once they won freedom, the firm delivered the aliens to smugglers who held them captive until the fee was paid, White said.
The firm - operated by Robert Porges, 61, and his wife, Sheery Lu Porges, 47 - represented aliens throughout the country at nearly every major INS detention center, White said.
The wide-scale fraud may have changed the outcome of as many as 7,000 asylum cases, forcing the government to review every one to determine whether each person should have been allowed to stay in the country, authorities said.
Robert Porges, a 1962 Harvard Law School graduate, could face 175 years in prison if convicted, while his wife could face life, White said.
Sheery Lu Porges also was charged with aiding snakeheads in the kidnappings of 17 Chinese immigrants since 1997. Robert Porges wasn't accused of participating in the seizure of immigrants who owed money.
Six other people were charged, including four who worked regularly for the firm.
A message left at the firm was not returned.
White said the government sought to send a stern message by using racketeering charges for the first time against a law firm specializing in immigration.
''The racketeering enterprise was in name a law firm but in reality functioned as a multimillion dollar assembly line factory for immigration fraud and assistance to snakehead alien smugglers to ensure a continuing flow of new clients,'' she said.
The firm used a ''mentality scale'' to grade each client's intelligence on a scale of one to five, and then made up an asylum story the client could remember, White said.
The case illustrates the ''cold, hard reality'' of alien smuggling, Meissner said.
''Those who are lucky enough to survive the voyage, whether it is aboard a freighter or in the cargo hold of a container ship, do not find the American dream and freedom,'' she said.
''Instead, they find a life of indentured servitude, working ... 18 hour days to pay off the smuggling debt. Others are forced into prostitution or into working as enforcers for the smuggling operations. Those who try to escape are subject to the extortion of their family members, to torture, to maiming and even death.''