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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Grand Forks Herald | 06/23/2004 | GRAND FORKS: Alleged illegal aliens appear in GF court

Grand Forks Herald | 06/23/2004 | GRAND FORKS: Alleged illegal aliens appear in GF court

GRAND FORKS: Alleged illegal aliens appear in GF court
Officials say it's a family affair
By Tu-Uyen Tran

Three alleged illegal aliens from Korea along with a woman the government said helped them enter the United States appeared in Grand Forks District Court on Tuesday for an arraignment hearing.

Three of the four pleaded not guilty while another held off a plea until he could hire an attorney. All were arrested June 13 not far from the Walhalla, N.D., Port of Entry

The biggest charges were leveled at Zenma Yi, 34, a legal U.S. resident from Cary, N.C.

She is charged with three counts of bringing an illegal alien into the United States, three of transporting illegal aliens and one of helping them enter the United States. Altogether, Yi faces a maximum of 90½ years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

Chang Kyung Cheon, 42, and Ki Ja Lee, 45, were each charged with one count of illegal entry into the United States and not reporting the currency they brought with them. Border Patrol agents confiscated more than $17,000 in cash when they were caught. They face maximum sentences of 5½ years and $255,000 in fines.

The fourth accused, Jong Seo Lee, 42, did not hear charges because he lacked an attorney to advise him how to plea.

Trials for the other three are scheduled for Aug. 18.

A family affair?

Unlike some recent illegal alien cases, the government has charged Yi with bringing illegal aliens into the country, not smuggling, which would involve an exchange of money.

However, assistant U.S. attorney Nick Chase said the alleged illegal entry seems too organized to be the work of amateurs.

Outwardly, the case appears to be one of a woman giving her relatives a hand rather than a professional smuggler helping clients.

Yi said she and Ki Ja Lee are sisters and that Cheon is married to Ki Ja Lee.

Originally, Yi said Jong Seo Lee was her boyfriend, but later said she is married to a U.S. citizen in Cary, N.C. Jong Seo Lee, too, is married. He told the court his wife and sister, both of whom live on the East Coast, would help him decide on an attorney.

Records show Jong Seo Lee is a Korean citizen who was previously deported from the United States. Authorities said he works for Yi's restaurateur husband.

The case fits the pattern of recent alien smuggling cases that have been tried in Grand Forks. Like the case involving several Costa Ricans, the Koreans arrived at a Canadian airport in a much larger city but traveled far to the west to cross at the relatively remote border in North Dakota.

According to the Border Patrol, here's how events led up to the arrest on June 13 of the four defendants.

About 2:20 a.m. that day, a customs agent manning a remote camera spotted a white, four-door Mercedes-Benz parked at the gate of the Walhalla, N.D., Port of Entry. The port was still hours from opening for the day and there was apparently no customs agent on duty.

An Asian woman was driving the car while an accomplice, an Asian man, was seen leaving the car to move some traffic cones. The car then drove around the gate.

At this point, the Border Patrol asked a Pembina County Sheriff's deputy to intercept the car as it traveled on state Highway 32. Border Patrol agents who arrived on the scene later found only Yi in the car. She consented to a search, and agents found Ki Ja Lee's Korean identification card and an airline passenger manifest with her name and Cheon's listed.

They apparently arrived in Toronto on June 7, a week before their arrest.

About 5:15 a.m., the Pembina Sheriff's deputies, on a tip, picked up Cheon, Ki Ja Lee and Jong Seo Lee near a Walhalla campground, their clothes wet and muddy.

Jong Seo Lee told deputies that he'd had a fight with his "girlfriend" Yi. He also said he was a U.S. citizen, but records show he was previously deported.

Yi cooperates

Officials said Yi spoke freely with Border Patrol agents who questioned her, though she did stop answering for a time after speaking with an attorney.

Yi told them she had entered Canada to bring her sister and brother-in-law into the United States because they couldn't get visas.

She deliberately dropped the other three off after seeing headlights coming from the other direction and feared it was authorities, she said. She said the plan was to use cell phones to arrange a pick-up.

The defense attorneys for Yi and Ki Ja Lee and Cheon declined comment.

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