Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Sunday, May 27, 2001

Looking at Chef Chai
from the other side

He's been cited as an example for others who want to come to this country.

What an example.

Yes, Chai Chaowasaree, a native of Thailand, has become a successful businessman and award-winning chef on Oahu, employing more than 70 people at his two restaurants.

Yes, Chaowasaree is widely respected and liked in the food industry, especially for his volunteer work on behalf of Hawaii's culinary education programs.

And yes, Chaowasaree has some high-profile supporters, including popular local chefs who have written letters and helped raise money to assist his efforts to fight deportation back to Thailand.

But that's only part of the story -- the part that has received the most attention.

The other part -- largely overlooked or downplayed -- is how Chaowasaree, whose real name is Vichai Sae Tung, got into this immigration mess in the first place. It is a mess entirely of his own doing.

Chaowasaree's legal problems started in 1991, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service determined that the chef's October 1986 marriage to a U.S. citizen -- a waitress he met only a few months before -- was a sham, designed to circumvent immigration laws.

The marriage took place after a brief courtship and after Chaowasaree's authorized stay in the United States had expired. As a spouse of a U.S. citizen, Chaowasaree was able to apply for permanent resident status.

When Chaowasaree's parents visited from Thailand after the marriage, he didn't even introduce them to his new wife -- something an immigration judge found significant, according to court records.

Six months after the marriage and as soon as Chaowasaree obtained conditional residency status, his wife left to look for work in Alaska, the records show. Chaowasaree paid for her airfare but didn't go along. His wife became intimate with another woman while in Alaska and lived with her there and in Hawaii for the next six years, the records say.

Chaowasaree, on the other hand, hasn't lived with his wife since April 1987, according to court records.

When the INS in 1989 questioned Chaowasaree about his marriage, he indicated he and his wife lived together for about two years. Later, he said they actually lived together for about a year. Then he said six months, according to a judge's ruling ordering Chaowasaree's deportation.

Likewise, an INS investigator got conflicting information from the married couple when he questioned them separately about living arrangements, addresses where they lived, wedding gifts, joint bank accounts and their relationship with the parents of Chaowasaree's wife, the judge's order said.

Chaowasaree, through his attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.

The chef has been fighting his deportation for the past decade, largely focusing on procedural issues. The outcome of his appeal could be decided when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco hears the case June 14.

Throughout the proceedings, the INS has argued that the law is the law, and everyone should be treated the same under that law, even folks who are well respected in the community.

But Chaowasaree's supporters have argued that whatever transgressions he has had with the INS, his contributions to Hawaii should count for more.

What kind of example, though, would that be setting for would-be immigrants? What kind of message would be sent?

Come to this country and you can skirt the law if it's in your interests, as long as you become a productive member of society, have high-profile supporters and are able to afford top-notch attorneys to bail you out of trouble.

Yes, what an example indeed.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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