Chung Ho Chun's biggest mistake was getting a job. In 1995, she left Korea to come to Atlanta, where four of her siblings live. The idea was that they would support her while she took care of their ailing parents.
By 1998, though, Chun's father had died. And as her brother-in-law Bruce Patterson tells it, tending to her mother every day was taking a toll.
"That'll make you climb the walls after a while," says Patterson, an Army veteran who married Chun's sister in 1976 when he was stationed in Korea. "That's how this job came about at the spa."
Unfortunately, the spa was one of those spas, which Patterson says his family didn't realize until an Atlanta police raid a few days after Chun began working there. Chun, according to later testimony, said she was hired merely to cook and clean. But, along the with the rest of the employees, Chun was arrested. She was 44 at the time.
Chun's English is negligible, Patterson says. Seven years ago, when she was arrested, it was practically nonexistent. She could say, "OK." She could say, "Thank you."
When she was told her problems would go away if she pleaded guilty, she did. In Fulton County State Court, she was fined $375 and given a six-month suspended sentence for prostitution and solicitation of sodomy. And her problems did go away -- at least until a few years later, when she traveled to Korea to tend to her son, who needed brain surgery (and who would eventually die).
Returning to Atlanta in September 2003, through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, her prostitution conviction flashed on a computer screen at the border check. The next spring, thanks to the proostitution conviction, she was ordered kicked out of the country. She was jailed -- first in Atlanta, then eventually in Harris County -- while she awaited deportation.
Up to that point, the system was working as it's designed to: Chun was, after all, a convicted prostitute, and immigration rules are clear that crimes of "moral turpitude" can be deportable offenses for noncitizens.
But there were problems, as Glenn Fogle, who was hired as her immigration attorney, soon realized. Looking back at Chun's case, Fogle concluded it was full of holes. Of the women arrested that day, police mentioned three with names similar to Chun's. Moreover, Chun allegedly was supposed to have quoted a price in English to an undercover officer -- words that were beyond her ability at the time.
Fogle also realized Chun's defense attorney had failed to advise her she could be deported if she pleaded guilty. So Fogle asked Fulton State Court to throw out the conviction, claiming Chun's constitutional rights had been violated. Within days, a Fulton County judge had obliged, agreeing that Chun didn't willingly or knowingly enter her guilty plea.
Fogle figured the Department of Homeland Security should drop the deportation proceedings against her, as well. After all, the conviction on which the government's case rested had been vacated. William Cassidy, the immigration judge presiding over Chun's deportation proceeding, seemed to agree. On July 13, 2004, two months after she was first jailed, Cassidy ruled Chun shouldn't be deported. He ordered her released.
But it's not for nothing that Cassidy has earned a reputation as one of the toughest immigration judges in the country. In the final paragraph of his ruling, he gave the legal equivalent of a "wink wink, nudge nudge" to the prosecutors.
Prostitution, Cassidy wrote, is a charge that actually doesn't require a conviction to deport an alien. Instead, coming to America and engaging in prostitution -- whether or not there's a conviction -- is grounds for deportation. "The government could have lodged an additional charge of prostitution," he wrote in his ruling. "Apparently, the government has chosen not to pursue this charge."
It didn't take long for prosecutors with the Department of Homeland Security to take the hint. Within 24 hours, they reopened the case and Cassidy agreed to reverse his ruling from the day before. Not only would Chun remain in jail, but it was looking like the bullet she'd avoided -- getting deported for her job at the spa -- was going to hit her after all.
Fogle was stunned. It was no surprise that Cassidy, who had been a prosecutor for the old Immigration and Naturalization Service earlier in his career, would favor the government's side. For instance, he routinely rejects about 19 of every 20 asylum cases that come before him, a rate far higher than the average immigration judge. (Government rules forbid immigration judges from speaking to the media.)
"He has his own agenda," Fogle says. "He knows that he has the power to let somebody in if he wants to, or not if he doesn't. I don't think he's ever been able to get the prosecutor out of his system."
But to so brazenly map out a strategy for the prosecution showed, as Fogle would write in his eventual appeal, "all the finesse of a sledgehammer to the forehead."
As Chun's case began lurching its way once again through Cassidy's court, Chun herself remained at Harris County Jail. Her sister made the two-hour drive to visit her at least once a week. Months passed. While Fogle, Cassidy and the government attorneys studied motions, rulings and testimony, Chun's hair went from black to gray. And the taxpayers, as they do with thousands of detained immigrants, picked up the cost of housing her, which can run up to $80 a day at some jails.
Lacking a prostitution conviction as grounds to deport Chun, the government instead relied on the police report -- a report that had been bungled in the first place, with names of the accused mixed up. Cassidy, however, saw the report as "clear, convincing and unequivocal" evidence that Chun had been involved in prostitution.
As for Chun's inability to speak English, Cassidy was skeptical that she wasn't fluent enough to entice johns at the spa. Chun, Cassidy ruled, "presented no evidence that she could not have learned a basic phrase to solicit individuals or demand a dollar amount."
Last spring, Fogle took his case to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C. Cassidy's "overt sarcasm and refusal to consider [Chun's] quite believable contention that she had not learned the true nature of the business in the brief time she had worked there reinforces the assertion that [she] did not receive a full and fair hearing," Fogle wrote. What's more, he wrote, the judge had become an "advocate for the government" by not-so-subtly suggesting a new course of action to deport Chun.
The board agreed, saying it was not Cassidy's role to "provide suggestions" to the government. The panel reversed his decision.
After 14 months behind bars, Chun is now a free woman. She lives with her sister and Patterson in Lawrenceville. She was unavailable for comment, but Patterson says she's getting used to life on the outside. She missed the birth of her second granddaughter while she was in jail.
"She wasn't doing well in jail," Fogle says. "I said, 'You can go back to Korea at any time [if you stop fighting].' She said, 'I want to stay in jail, because I didn't do this.'"
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