Sonam always feared her devotion to Buddhism would land her behind bars in her native China. As it turns out, she is serving a long term in jail -- not in East Asia but in central Virginia.
The 30-year-old Buddhist nun, who grew up in a Tibetan village near the foot of Mount Everest, fled to the United States last August after family members had been tortured and friends jailed for their faith, she said. But when she arrived at Dulles International Airport and requested asylum, federal immigration officials detained her and placed her in the local jail in this small city outside Richmond.
Sonam, who is known by that one name, has been here ever since except for a brief visit last November to a court room in Arlington where a federal immigration judge granted her asylum. But even as she was hugging her attorney in celebration, the lawyer from the Department of Homeland Security announced that she was appealing the case.
Sonam was then shackled and returned to her cell, where she waits for her next court date, which is likely to be in the fall at the earliest, her attorney said.
Sonam is among thousands of asylum seekers who have fled persecution in their homelands only to be jailed in the United States, a new report by the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights shows.
By law, the Department of Homeland Security detains all asylum seekers who arrive without proper documents. But since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal immigration officials have also been denying parole to these immigrants and appealing rulings in their favor, a practice that can keep them locked up for years, according to the report, which monitored the department's activities for a year and details scores of cases, including Sonam's.
Homeland Security officials deny they are trying to keep asylum seekers behind bars, although they acknowledge that long incarcerations occur. They say they are reviewing their practices in response to the report and are tallying statistics on how many asylum seekers have been detained, refused parole or seen their cases appealed.
"Even a well-balanced policy can get out of kilter on an individual case because someone has exercised poor judgment," said Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security.
At the same time, he and others say there is concern that a terrorist could slip into the country under the guise of an asylum request.
"People who come here may have no legitimate [reason]. They are here for economic reasons or for criminal reasons and have been trained to assert asylum," Hutchinson said.
"That requires us to be careful and . . . sometimes it makes people more skeptical of asylum cases than they should be."
Flight and fear
Last week, during an interview at the Riverside Regional Jail, Sonam spoke of her journey to the United States that began with a desperate, eight-day walk to Nepal across snow-capped mountains and ended with her first ride on an airplane, which frightened her so much she couldn't look out the window.
Sonam Singeri, a Tibetan working for Radio Free Asia who has befriended Sonam, was at the interview to translate. As soon as Sonam walked into the visitors' room and saw Singeri, she collapsed into her arms and sobbed uncontrollably.
"It's so lonely. It's so hard. Why is this happening?" she cried out, Singeri said.
Sonam told a story of flight and fear. She said her father had been jailed in Tibet and tortured with electric shock. She described hiding from police patrols as she made her way across the Himalaya Mountains to Nepal, where she lived for three years.
But even there, she said, she worried about her safety. In May, the Nepalese government began to round up Tibetan refugees and send them back to China, where they were sure to face prison and torture, she said.
Even after asylum seekers such as Sonam have convinced immigration judges that they are bona fide and pose no threat, Homeland Security lawyers continue to press appeals in many cases, the Lawyers Committee report says.
'Sending a message'
"They are indefinitely detaining asylum seekers who have already been granted relief, who present no risk, who have often been tortured in their home countries," said Archi Pyati, who works in the Lawyers Committee's asylum program.
"We are sending a message that in the United States . . . we don't hope that asylum seekers find their way here because if they do they will find themselves in a very difficult situation and in prolonged detention."
Immigrants seeking asylum in this country must prove not only their identities but also that they are in danger in their native countries.
Sonam's case was appealed because she did not have enough documentation to back up her story, according to a brief filed by Homeland Security attorney Deborah Todd. The fact that Sonam lived in Nepal for three years indicated that she could have safely stayed there and did not need to come to the United States, Todd argued in her appeal.
Asked to comment, a spokesman for Homeland Security said the department does not talk about ongoing cases.
Sonam said she had no way to get identity documents in Nepal because the government does not recognize refugees from China. She feared that she would be deported to China along with other Tibetans who were being sent back at the time. So she sought a way to get to the United States.
Using the money she had made as a seamstress before she joined her monastery in Nepal, Sonam booked a flight through Calcutta to Dulles.
After she was jailed in Virginia, her attorney, who has taken the case pro bono, twice asked the Department of Homeland Security to release her from detention, arguing that Sonam poses no danger. But immigration officials denied both requests without much explanation, according to Sonam's attorney.
Tears without speaking
The hardest part of her life these days is that she cannot speak or understand the language of the inmates or guards. (She is also illiterate in her native Tibetan tongue). She has not been able to have a conversation with anyone since her hearing last November and wept as she recounted her seemingly endless days of silence and isolation in jail.
"I live in a prison but always in my mind, I hold onto a picture of his Holiness [the Dalai Lama] in my heart," she said. "This prison has become my monastery."
An hour into the interview, a guard tapped the window of the visitors' room. It was time to go.
Sonam shed a few more tears. It might be months before her next conversation. She hugged Singeri again and then followed the guard back to her part of the jail where she does not speak, cannot understand anyone and where she waits in her prison within a prison.