HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. -- In the drama of illegal immigration, the smuggler plays the most unsympathetic character. Reviled as a profiteer in human desperation, the smuggler rarely attracts the support and forgiveness of the public.
Tao "Andy" Lin seems to fit the part. He charged six Chinese people large sums of money to smuggle them into the United States. He was arrested, and two years ago, Lin, 37, pleaded guilty to bribery and smuggling and was sentenced to 18 months. Now, he is waiting to see if an immigration judge revokes his green card and deports him to China.
Mayor Meryl Frank, right, and Lingyan Zuang embrace in the Borough of Highland Park, N.J. Zuang is the wife of Tao "Andy" Lin, who pleaded guilty to smuggling six people into the United States from China. Supporters circulate petitions opposing his deportation.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
None of which explains why an orthodox Jewish woman sits outside the immigration courtroom during Lin's hearings, praying for him as she knits a scarf. Or why the mayor of Highland Park, where Lin owns a popular downtown store, travels nearly two hours to Manhattan to observe the immigration hearings.
Lin, in short, is a convicted smuggler who has become an unlikely hometown hero. Many residents here have rallied behind him; they have signed petitions, created a Web site (www.bringandyhome.com) and organized caravans to help dozens of neighbors attend his immigration hearings.
As the cause has gained momentum, Lin's case has triggered the collective conscience of this borough in central New Jersey. Some see Lin as a freedom fighter trying to liberate his relatives from an oppressive government. Others say they hear echoes of their families' immigrant pasts.
"I can't tell you how many people talk about their grandparents and Europe," said Mayor Meryl Frank, when describing the sidewalk chatter about Lin. "My community has a lot of survivors of war in Africa and descendants from the Holocaust, and they talk about difficult situations their families were in and how they walked across borders."
Residents here are not hopeless romantics. Most agree that Lin broke the law. But they argue that justice was done when Lin served his prison sentence.
Immigration officials and court documents tell another story. Lin became the target of a federal sting operation in May 2000 after an informant tagged him a "known smuggler." That autumn, Lin purchased falsified travel documents from an undercover immigration agent, in a scheme to smuggle six Chinese into the United States. He charged each person $20,000 for the illegal entry, which included a plane ticket to Newark International Airport. They were later taken into custody by immigration officials.
Federal immigration officials describe Lin as an ambitious and greedy human smuggler, with designs on extending his lucrative enterprise into South America.
"He's duping the public," said Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, adding that Lin never mentioned that family members were the human cargo he sought to transport. "This was a pure profit-driven human smuggling operation, and to now suggest otherwise is an effort to distort the truth and prevent his deportation."
Lin's wife, Lingyan Zuang, a naturalized citizen, insists that when an undercover officer offered to sell her husband forged documents, he jumped at the chance to help family members living in Fujian province. Zuang, 36, said her husband faces great risks because of his role as a student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy movement in the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, and she offered photos of Lin at a demonstration in China to support the claim.
But Steven Wong, an expert on human smuggling in Manhattan's Chinatown, cautioned that in the Chinese underworld, smugglers often capitalize on political sympathies. Smugglers, he said, will invoke everything from, "You are political prisoner, to victim of the one-child policy to, 'I practice Falun Gong.' "
All of this sounds quite damning. But the facts are seen in a very different light in Highland Park, where 15,000 residents fit snugly into two square miles across a winding river from Rutgers University. People here like to say that university professors live in Highland Park -- and so do the janitors. More than 70 languages are spoken here, and residents relish the small-town feel that comes with strolling by kosher bakeries and corner malt shops.
Most folks eventually find their way to Lin's dollar store, nicknamed "the Buck Stops Here." When the Orthodox Jewish women needed special baskets for their bagel and cream cheese arrangements, they ran to Dollar City for help. Supporters believe that when Lin's family wanted to leave China, his generous spirit led him astray.