Shutting the Asylum Door?

Last year, I (and many others) followed with interest the story of Sonam, a Tibetan nun who had been jailed in the United States while seeking asylum. Claiming to have fled Tibet because of religious persecution, Sonam had been living in Nepal until local instability and a Nepalese crackdown on Tibetan refugees forced her to flee once again. Arriving in the United States with a false passport, Sonam was arrested while her asylum claim was evaluated. After being initially granted asylum by an immigration judge, Sonam was imprisoned for another six months while the Department of Homeland Security appealed the ruling. After the Washington Post broke the story, it was picked up by the Buddhist News Network (now The Buddhist Channel) and sparked a campaign of letters and calls to Congress that eventually resulted in Sonam being freed.

Now, more than a year after her release, Sonam is back in the news, and back in court. Sonam (whose last name is apparently Chodon) has been charged with passport fraud, document fraud, and perjury. These charges apparently stem from the false passport that Ms. Chodon carried when she entered the United States in 2003. Federal investigators claim that Chodon is part of a Nepalese passport fraud ring, and that the document she used to try and enter the United States had been used on at least five occasions by other individuals trying to enter the United States. They claim that Sonam Chodon is not actually a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and that she invented her story of entering a Nepalese nunnery in order to garner sympathy for her cause. The Buddhist Channel is carrying two articles from the Washington Post describing the situation.

Some of the facts in the case are clear. It has never been contested that Sonam Chodon entered the United States with a false passport. Attempting to enter the U.S. with a false document does not disqualify an individual from receiving asylum; fortunately, the asylum process recognizes that individuals fleeing an oppressive country may be unable to legally procure the documents that they need to travel abroad. It is, however, an immigration violation, and places asylum seekers in the more contentious ‘defensive asylum’ track, in which the asylum seeker tries to prove their case in order to avoid extradition while the immigration authority (currently the Department of Homeland Security) attempts to challenge the seekers right to asylum.

Chodon passed through this ‘defensive asylum’ process, and was ultimately granted asylum. But now, the issue of her false documentation is again being brought fourth. The indictment brought against Chodon says only that she purchased the false passport from members of a passport fraud ring operating in Nepal. On the basis of that action, it seems, she is being charged with cospiracy and other federal charges as a member of that ring.

Federal officials have also said privately that enquiries made in Nepal have revealed that Sonam was not a resident of the nunnery where she claimed to have been living while in Nepal. That may form the basis of the perjury charges. But given the sensitive situation in Nepal, particularly with respect to Tibetan refugees, not to mention the complex and contentious religious situation in Chinese-occupied Tibet, it seems uncertain how much information might be available about a single refugee nun who left the country two years ago, and how reliable that information would be.

Even if the allegation that Chodon lied about being a nun prove to be true, the issue of the passport fraud and conspiracy charges remains potentially problematic. If using false documents does not disqualify an individual from receiving asylum, then why is the issue of the origin of those documents still an issue? Is the asylum seeker responsible for origin of their false passport or travel visa? Filing charges based on purchasing and using a false document undermines the principle that desperate individuals should still be considered for asylum, even if their documentation is inadequate to allow ordinary entry into the United States.

The Washington Post article seems to indicate that the government is not challenging the basis of Chodon’s asylum claim: that she was threatened with torture if she was repatriated to China from Nepal. If the initial motivation for granting asylum is still valid, and if asylum seekers can be granted relief even if they are in violation of ordinary standards of documentation, then it is illogical for the government to try and prosecute an asylum seeker for passport or document fraud for entering the country with a false passport or other travel document. The grant of asylum essentially says that the government believes in this particular case that the false documents can be overlooked because of the risk of torture or oppression.

Something more has to be going on. It’s possible the government is preparing to open a wider enquiry into Sonam Chodon’s religious status, and once again challenge the basis of her asylum claim. It’s also possible that the government is on a fishing expedition, applying pressure to Chodon in order to try and land a bigger prize: the Nepalese passport forgers she received her documents from, one of whom is named in the indictment (a Kelsang Gurung). DoHS authorities may think that by offering a deal, or the threat of jail or deportation, that Chodon will cooperate in helping identify, locate, and testify against the person or persons who have been supplying these false passports to individuals attempting to illegally enter the United States.

More troubling is the motivation suggested by Human Rights First asylum program director Eleanor Acer:

This is a chilling message to anyone who complains about their treatment in immigration detention

Acer seems to believe that these new charges are an attempt by immigration officials to retaliate against Chodon for the attention that she drew to the plight of U.S. asylum seekers, who have faced a much more difficult path since the September 11th attacks. Human Rights First conducted a study of conditions for asylum seekers entering the United States, and found that since the Department of Homeland Security assumed control of the asylum process, it has become a system that much more aggressively challenges and imprisons individuals claiming asylum.

Certainly, a certain amount of skepticism and aggressive inquiry is necessary to ensure that miscreants don’t abuse the asylum system. Advocates of the new, more aggressive enforcement point out that World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef entered the U.S. through the asylum system during the more lax regime of the INS, and that non-traditional routes of entry into the country (such as the student visa system) have become a favorite target for exploitation by would-be terrorists. At the same time, there is a very real risk that the asylum system will end up punishing and victimizing the most at-risk and vulnerable participants in the immigration system. A difficult balance must be struck between protecting the United States from foreign infiltration, and defending individuals who are ill-equipped to protect themselves from government regimes, in the U.S. and abroad, that essentially hold all the cards.

Hopefully, the inquiry into Sonam Chodon’s case will clarify her situation once and for all, and open the door to a more public discussion of the treatment of asylum seekers in the United States.

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