By Ben Hills
In a church in Sydney’s south, a family of six knelt in prayer – if God didn’t hear them, they would be kicked out of the country that had been their home for two years. The Chiongs are among 59 families caught up in Australia’s greatest immigration scandal – but it seems they are the victims, not the villains.
On the sunny last Sunday of winter, Chester Chiong packed his wife and their four children into the car and drove them to their local parish church, St Joseph’s – a sprawl of modern brick buildings in Moorebank, an industrial suburb on Sydney’s southern fringe.
There they listened to the sermon, sang the hymns and prayed even more fervently than usual… because this was a special Sunday. Unless there was a divine intervention, it would be the last one they would spend in Australia, the country which had welcomed them two years before, and had been their home since.
After the mass, the parish priest, Father Graham McIntyre, addressed the congregation along the lines of a letter which he had written to his old friend (and fellow former seminarian) Tony Abbott a few weeks earlier, asking him to intervene with the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, to prevent the family being kicked out of the country:
“The Chiongs are victims of a fraud of which an employee of the Immigration and Border Protection Department was a beneficiary,” he had written. “Our parish recognises that (they) are a gentle, hard-working, law-abiding family, and contributors to our society.”
Other parishioners, Filipino and non-Filipino alike, gathered around to express their support for the Chiongs, and to sign a petition against their deportation – a petition which had 2000 signatures and would gather many more at a morning mass at St Therese in Maroubra the following day.
Having had all his appeals for ministerial intervention and judicial review rejected “… all I can do now is pray for a miracle,” says Chester.
About 1000km to the north, the man responsible for the Chiong family’s dreadful predicament sits in a prison cell in Brisbane. Alex Allan is eight months into a 14-month sentence for his role in the gravest corruption scandal ever to hit the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP).
Between May 2013 and April the following year the 52-year-old Filipino-born mid-level manager at Immigration’s Brisbane office took $563,290 in bribes – often bundles of cash handed over by middle-men at clandestine meetings in cafes – in exchange for issuing visas to the Chiongs and 58 other families from the Philippines and Vietnam who otherwise might not have qualified for entry into Australia.
Since the discovery of the massive scam, “over half” of the 59 families have had their visas cancelled and either left Australia voluntarily or been deported, says a spokeswoman for the Assistant Immigration Minister responsible, Alex Hawke – whose mother’s grandparents immigrated from Greece in the 1950s.
“Some” of the rest have been given legal visas, the spokeswoman said. “A small number” are either in detention or “have deliberately disengaged.”
“Deliberately disengaged?” I asked her.
“They are on the run.”
The story of Chester Marquez Chiong begins in Cagayan de Oro, a city of half a million on Mindanao, an island in the tropical south of the Philippines archipelago, where he was born. Although the city’s name translates as ‘River of Gold’ there was little opportunity there for a young man from a middle-class family of four (father a mechanical engineer, mother a teacher), even after he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
Mindanao is a turbulent place, hosting two bloody full-scale insurrections – one Islamist, one Communist – as well as the armies of drug lords and government-backed vigilante death squads. The Department of Foreign Affairs warns Australians bluntly “Do Not Travel” to the south and west of the island where mayhem, murder and kidnapping are commonplace.
In 2012, married to Sarah, a teacher, and with four children to look after, Chester decided that he had few prospects in Mindanao and signed up with a labour hire company. They found him a job with Aramco, the state-owned oil company, working on oil rigs in the Saudi Arabian desert. “It was hard work, but I thought ‘With God’s grace I will survive,’” he says.
On his 40th birthday, September 8, 2013, Chester was telephoned by a relative who had migrated to Australia more than a decade earlier and who had done well. She suggested that he consider migrating here too – for a better future for his children. When Chester protested that he had no money, she said that she would lend him the money for the fees and handle the paperwork.
He emailed this relative his birth certificate, police clearance and college diploma and in February 2014 she emailed him that he had been granted a Section 189 visa (for a “skilled independent” worker) and that he and his family had been given permanent residency. Ignorant of the slothful pace of Australia’s Immigration bureaucrats, Chester’s suspicions were not aroused by the speed of the approval.
Nor did he have any idea about Alex Allan’s role in approving his visa. Chester swears that he never met the corrupt Immigration official, never spoke to him on the phone, never emailed him – and never bribed him. That was all done by his relative, he says.
“I am not a corrupt person. I would never do that.”
At first everything went well for the Chiong family, though their living conditions were rather cramped. They flew into Sydney in June 2014 and all moved into the relative’s garage, where they lived until Chester and Sarah could get work and earn enough money for their own accommodation.
The children were enrolled in local state schools: their daughter Sheen, who is now 19, the boys Jericho, 16, John Lloyd, 14 and George, 11. All have done well and speak fluent ‘Aussie’ English.
They even had time for some sightseeing. The relative took them to see Sydney Harbour, the Bridge and the Opera House. On a trip to the Snowy Mountains that winter, they all saw snow for the first time.
The first hint Chester had that things were not as they seemed was when his relative started demanding that he repay the money he owed her for arranging his visas. “When I asked her ‘How much?’ she said it was $50,000. It was a lot of money, but I didn’t know what things cost in Australia and I still didn’t realise it was a bribe,” he says, “When she mentioned Alex Allan, I thought he was an immigration agent and that was his fee.”
The relative registered Chester for unemployment benefits at Centrelink and began taking chunks of his payments. Then, when he found work assembling caravans at a local factory in Moorebank, she would take $100 or $150 a week from his paltry basic-wage pay packet.
Chester couldn’t believe the relative could have been a party to colossal corruption, until he saw a report on the news about Allan’s trial in Brisbane. Then the penny – or rather the brick of banknotes – dropped.
In the Brisbane District Court in November 2015, Alex Escala Allan pleaded guilty to two ‘omnibus’ charges of bribery involving issuing visas to 59 people (and their families) over an 11-month period, and receiving $563,290. The prosecutor, David Henschell, told the court that his corruption “struck at the heart of Australia’s immigration and border protection system”.
Because he had cooperated with investigators and turned over all his records, Judge David Searles sentenced Allan to a relatively light eight-month prison stretch, commenting that he was “…a man of good character who went off the rails, initially to help your family and friends, but was later caught in a web of intrigue from which it was impossible to escape”.
However the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions appealed against the leniency of the sentence, and an appeal court increased it by six months. Allan is due to be released in February.
Increasing Allan’s sentence, the President of the Appeal Court, Justice Margaret McMurdo, noted that although he had fully cooperated with the Australian Federal Police:
“General deterrence is obviously an important factor in sentencing for this sort of offence, which strikes at the heart of the social fabric of our community. We cannot become a society that tolerates corruption.”
The massive fraud was only discovered when an alert Immigration official at Brisbane airport stopped two Vietnamese men arriving on skilled visas to work as a ‘management accountant’ and a ‘construction project manager.’ His suspicions were aroused because they could hardly speak a word of English – they turned out to be barely-literate peasant farmers.
When he looked into it further, the official discovered that although the visa applications logged into Immigration’s computers looked kosher, when he tried to check on the supporting documents he got a message saying “corrupted PDF.” Normally this would be dismissed as a computer glitch, but this official dug deeper. Soon the Vietnamese pair were packed onto the next plane home, and Allan’s cunning scheme came to light.
A naturalised Australian originally from the Philippines, Allan had been working for the Immigration department in Brisbane for a number of years, earning $61,000 per year as a fairly junior official.
He took advantage of a temporary promotion to ‘acting manager’ to obtain a login which, according to the prosecution’s statement of facts, enabled him to handle the entire visa approval process himself, without oversight.
To prevent detection, Allan introduced software into the system which – if anyone tried to double-check documents supporting the application – would render them corrupt and unreadable. He used untraceable ‘burn phones’ and a variety of email addresses to communicate with his ‘customers’ and middle-men.
At first Allan appears to have helped out his family and friends with his dodgy visas. The first on the charge sheet, in June 2013, was his son Christian Duane Patrick Lambinicio Burgos, now aged 28, who arrived in Brisbane from the Philippines and obtained a job at the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General.
Then came his teenaged daughter Cheyenne. Three months later, Allan manufactured a visa for his son’s Filipina girlfriend, Laarni Lomeda Osorio.
Then the floodgates opened. In the following four months, 15 more visas were issued to Philippines migrants, the last on the list being Chester Marquez Chiong. Allan had met a relative of Chiong’s at a party in Mt Druitt during a visit to Sydney.
By then, however, Allan had joined forces with a Vietnamese friend – whom he met through a mutual love of motorcycling – and at a dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant in Brisbane, the visa fraud was put on an industrial scale.
Minh Huy Lam, Allan’s trial was told, would recruit would-be migrants from Vietnam – most of them farmers from rural provinces – and split the bribes with him. Allan’s cut was handed over to him in bundles of banknotes during clandestine meetings at Allan’s home in the suburb of Doolandella, Lam’s home in Regents Park, or at The Coffee Club café in Sunnybank.
Although they started modestly – $15,000 was the initial price of a typical working visa – the bribery soon escalated dramatically. Christopher Levingston, a Sydney immigration agent, says that he has a Vietnamese client who paid $160,000 for her visa. She has since left Australia, along with her student daughter, when their visas were cancelled.
By March 2014, when the scandal broke, 42 Vietnamese had been brought into Australia on false visas. Although few of them had any education, their visas entitled them to work in white-collar jobs such as accountancy, and certified falsely that they spoke English.
When the authorities contacted him, Allan professed ignorance, but emailed Lam seeking an urgent meeting: “It’s starting to look bad… all the remaining people who are not here might have to cancel their travel plans as they will surely be pulled aside at the airport.”
Allan’s lawyer, Daniel Hannay, of Brisbane’s Hannay Lawyers, told the court that Allan had earlier tried to stop the fraud, but had been blackmailed by Lam, who threatened to tell the authorities about his corruption unless he continued to issue the visas. Minh Huy Lam is awaiting trial.
The whole affair has turned into a disaster for Allan and his family – a disaster well-deserved, the prosecutor would argue. On top of the 14-month prison sentence, he faces bankruptcy if the Taxation Department has its way.
Although he forfeited $420,000 of the bribes that he received, the Department has sent him a tax bill of more than $1 million, a bill he will find hard to pay since his last job (after being fired by Immigration) was driving a garbage truck.
On top of all that, although Alex and his wife Louisa cannot be deported as they are Australian citizens, both their children – daughter Cheyenne, who is 18, and his son Duane, 28 – have had their visas revoked and were sent back to the Philippines.
As for the Vietnamese, it is believed that most of them have either left the country, or are on the run. Ian Stanley-Bosley, a Brisbane immigration agent, said four of them had come to him for help last year after their visas were cancelled.
“They were simple country folk from Vietnam, where it is usual to work with corrupt officials,” he said.
“Blame the [Immigration] department’s systems. One person being able to cherry-pick 59 cases and process them from start to finish with no [oversight]? In 2015, this is unbelievable.
“Look to the upper levels of the department to cull and fix. If they have no basic risk control, then get someone else to take over. The case officers are working with crazy systems, crazy policy and at levels above their ability in many cases – [it is] not their fault.
“There was nothing I could do for the Vietnamese who came to see me. I reckon that without question, some of them are on the run – along with the 50,000 or 60,000 people from other countries who are here illegally. Their visitor or student visas expire and they just don’t go home.”
Chester Chiong and his family had been fighting to be allowed to stay in Australia since May last year when – out of the blue – the Department of Immigration and Border Protection sent Chester a registered letter, advising him that his visa would be cancelled and he would have to leave Australia.
Life, he says, would have nothing for him if he had to return to Mindanao. He and the family would have nowhere to live, having sold their house. The children’s schooling would be disrupted. And he would have no work – the cancellation of his visa would mean that he would be “blacklisted” from working abroad for years.
Chester’s first appeal against the decision was to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. However, although the tribunal accepted that there was no evidence that Chester had ever met Allan, nor bribed him (how could he have – he was in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert?), it rejected his appeal.
The relative insists that it was Chester who arranged the visas – however, she would not give evidence and refused to respond to my phone calls, emails and a knock on the door to invite her to tell her side of the story. And the evidence seems to support Chester’s story – including the fact that the visa application was lodged from the relative’s email address, and contains mistakes no father would make, including classifying his daughter Sheen as ‘male’.
Not that things have worked out well for the relative. She is out of pocket for most of the $50,000 she says she paid to bribe Allan. And the son and daughter of her partner have also had their visas cancelled and have had to leave Australia.
What weighed against Chester with the AAT was the fact that he had been coerced by this relative and her lawyer into signing a false statutory declaration, in which he took responsibility for the bribery. “She got me to sign it to cover up her role in the whole thing,” says Chester – who has now sworn a second statutory declaration that sets the story straight.
Twice since then, he has appealed for ministerial intervention from the DIBP Minister, Peter Dutton. And twice it has been rejected by the minister’s “delegate”. In his most recent letter in July, Chester included testimonials from his parish priest, his employer, his children’s schools and a copy of the petition taken up in support of his case.
“In hindsight, putting my whole trust in my (relative) was a big mistake,” Chester wrote. “I deeply regret and am very remorseful about the fraudulent visa scam (but) to deeply punish the Chiong family for fraud by a corrupt immigration officer is unjust. Australia has a cherished reputation for giving everyone a fair go. Please add your voice to the Chiong family’s heartfelt request for the Immigration Minister to reinstate their permanent residency visa.”
As the hours ticked away and three large, newly-purchased suitcases sat in the hallway of Chester’s rented house in Moorebank, clutching at straws, I reached out to Alex Allan’s Brisbane lawyer, Daniel Hannay, to see whether his client would confirm one way or another who had bribed him for the visas – Chester or his relative.
Over the weekend, Hannay arranged for Allan’s wife, Louisa, to visit him in prison, and on Monday Hannay texted me: “Alex has agreed to undertake a statutory declaration that he never met, nor had any contact with Chester.”
On Wednesday, Allan swore the statutory declaration at Palen Creek, the minimum security prison campus 100km north of Brisbane where he is being held. In it he says that he processed Chester’s visa, but categorically denies ever having met him or having any communication with him.
A copy of the document was emailed to Craig Kelly at Parliament House in Canberra. Kelly is Chester’s local Liberal MP who had examined the evidence and agreed to make one last bid to stop his deportation.
The email arrived just 20 hours before the Chiong family was due to fly out of Australia. Their tickets back to Zamboanga had been bought by Migrante, an international welfare organisation set up to help Filipinos abroad – the alternative was to wait at home for Border Force officials to arrest and deport them.
With time slipping away, Kelly went to see the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, to plead for an extension of Chester’s visa.
“It seems that Chester and his family have been unwittingly caught up in a web of deception,” Kelly told me. “On the evidence I have seen it appears as though they have acted in good faith and should not be penalised for the crimes of other people.
“In the two years that they have been here the Chiongs have settled in well, the parents are both working and contributing to society, and if they are allowed to stay I believe they will make good citizens.”
However, his plea fell on deaf ears. Dutton said that there was nothing he could do – the visas had been illegally obtained, their appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal had been rejected, and the Chiongs would have to leave on Thursday, September 1. There would be no extension of the bridging visa.
The last time I spoke to Chester and Sarah, they were at Sydney’s international airport waiting to board Cebu Pacific flight 5J40 bound for Manila, en route to Zamboanga City, in Mindanao. Sister Ann Martin from St Josephs and a representative of Migrante had gone to see them off.
It was a tearful farewell. “We are so sad,” sobbed Sarah. “I don’t know what we will do – there is nothing for us in the Philippines. We are leaving all our dreams here.”
Philippines photography by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images, Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images, TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images.
Australian Parliament photography by AAP Image/Lukas Coch, AAP Image/Dean Lewins.