Chicago’s New Asylum Seekers

Chicago’s New Asylum Seekers
Photo by Heather A. Lindquist
Chicago’s New Asylum Seekers
Photo by Heather A. Lindquist

Chicago’s New Asylum Seekers

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We turn now to another story in our series Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders.

Every year, people from all over the world land at O’Hare airport seeking asylum.

Many come with fake documents, fleeing persecution in their home countries.

Over the past year, a new group of asylum seekers has arrived here: Tibetans.

When they touched down, they were sent where others who ask for asylum at airports often go: to jail, while the government figures out who they are and whether they can stay.

Chicago Public Radio’s Catrin Einhorn reports…

The Tibetan teenager was released from jail on the first day of spring, the same day the US government gave him asylum.

But there was a problem.

He was in downtown Chicago at immigration court, officers didn’t bring his clothes, and they wouldn’t let him leave in the orange prison jumpsuit he was wearing.

So his lawyers—two litigation attorneys in heels who took the case for free—ran out to find him something.

They came back with a big plastic bag.

SPECTOR: We just went walking for anything we could see that sold clothes.

Catherine Spector is one of the lawyers.

SPECTOR: We stopped in a Walgreens and got a Chicago shirt and a t-shirt and they didn’t sell pants, so we went to the DePaul Bookstore and got a pair of sweatpants and the t-shirts that they gave us.

A few minutes later, their client came through a revolving door wearing the navy blue sweatshirt with “Chicago” plastered across the front and the black sweatpants.


This young man is one of at least 12 Tibetans who have flown to O’Hare over the past year and into the web of US asylum policy.

He wants us to use only his first name, Lobsang (LOB-SAHNG).

He says he fears for the safety of the rest of his family, still in Tibet.

Glen Triveline (TRIH-vih-line) is with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Chicago.

TRIVELINE: I’ve worked for the immigration service for a long time, for over 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen Tibetans come in in this way.

It’s unclear why Tibetans suddenly came to O’Hare.

Maybe flight patterns changed, making Chicago the first port of entry into the US.

What IS clear, is why Tibetans are leaving their home.

Tibetan advocacy groups, human rights groups, and the US State Department all say Chinese authorities commit human rights abuses in Tibet, including torture, arbitrary detention, and religious repression.

The Tibetan religious leader is the Dalai Lama.

Lobsang says his parents have a picture of the Dalai Lama, but they have to hide it.

He says his own trouble started when a monk he knew asked for help with a religious ceremony.

Here’s how Lobsang tells it.

He was in charge of serving tea and washing dishes.

He’s only 17 years old—he was 16 then.

After the ceremony, the monk who led it was arrested.

LOBSANG: I came to know after the arrest that the Chinese are also looking for me, because neighbors and our members also told me. It was a very difficult decision to leave, because I don’t want to leave behind my land, the place where I was born, my parents. But the circumstances are such that one has to escape.

Lobsang says at first he didn’t know where to go.

But he says a contact person told him to leave for the US, where he’d have rights and live in a democracy.

That person arranged fake papers.

When he got on the plane, Lobsang says he had no idea where in the US he was going.

LOBSANG: I was very, very sad.

He was also scared.

He says he had never been on a plane before and was worried that any small movement—even drinking water—would throw the plane off balance.

He sat very still.

When the plane landed in Chicago, Lobsang was arrested.

The charge was the same one that catches a lot of people who come to the US for protection: trying to get in without the right documents.

LOBSANG: I have seen lots of security police in Tibet. My first feeling was a sense of fear when I first saw the police coming towards me. One thing really give me a big surprise was that their first question was how are you, how are you feeling, are you ok?

Homeland Security officers interviewed Lobsang through a Tibetan interpreter over the phone.

LOBSANG: He told me that I am in Chicago. I was surprised what that name means. Am I in a big or small town? I could not get that word, Chicago, on my lips. Later on in the prison, when I hear from people talking about Chicago, Chicago, slowly, slowly I learned that word.

Lobsang had a lot of time to learn the word.

He was held at Kenosha County Jail for more than four months. Immigration officials say that’s typical.

The Department of Homeland Security contracts with county jails to hold asylum seekers and other immigrants.

Minors go to a special home, but Lobsang told officials he was older.

In jail, Lobsang says he was confused about what was happening and couldn’t speak with anyone.

He says he walked around the yard, flipped through magazines, wrote poetry.

He tried not to sleep during the day so he could sleep at night.

LOBSANG: I felt sense of loneliness, I felt that I might be deported back to Tibet, that was a big concern. And then, since I was thrown in a jail where there are people who are strangers to me, I could never communicate, I could never understand with whom I should associate, with whom I should not associate.

Lobsang says he was in jail almost two months before he realized he could call an attorney.

Detained asylum seekers and other immigrants don’t have the right to a lawyer at the government’s expense, but they do have the right to try to get free legal help.

They’re supposed to find out about it at the airport through US Customs and Border Protection.

But Lobsang says he didn’t know until an immigration judge gave him a piece of paper with phone numbers on it.

Then when he got it, he couldn’t read it.

LOBSANG: I took it to the prison and at one time I was looking at the paper and suddenly I saw a prison inmate, he was black, and he was saying something to me which I could not understand. So I handed him the paper, he looked at the paper, picked up the receiver and called to get me help.

Legal aid attorneys are outraged over how the government treats asylum seekers.

MCCARTHY: It’s really a national embarrassment.

Mary Meg McCarthy runs the National Immigrant Justice Center, which is handling the Tibetan cases.

MCCARTHY: I mean this country was founded on people who were fleeing persecution because of their religious beliefs, you look at the Puritans. And yet the way we treat people now when they come seeking protection is we lock them up, and don’t give them access to basic fundamental rights, such as a lawyer.

Having a lawyer makes a difference: 2002 Georgetown University report found that asylum seekers with lawyers were about 5 times more likely to win their cases.

The stakes are high.

If legitimate asylum seekers are sent back to their countries of origin, they may face torture and death.

McCarthy says in jail, it’s even more important to have a lawyer.

MCCARTHY: When you’re detained, you’re isolated, you are really invisible.

McCarthy says the government should release asylum seekers sooner, let them out while their cases wind through immigration court.

The agency responsible for detaining them is US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Spokeswoman Gail Montenegro says the agency jails people for good reason.

MONTENEGRO: We know that in the past, many criminals have used fraudulent asylum claims to enter and remain in the United States. Sometimes to commit terrorist acts, sometimes to escape facing charges for crimes they’ve committed in their home countries. ICE has every right to hold someone in detention until we determine their identity or their true intentions.


On that first day of spring, Lobsang walked out of immigration court in downtown Chicago, taking his first free steps in the US.

He thanked his lawyers and left with a Tibetan man, Namgyal Shallung (NAHM-gyal SHAL-long), who also helped with his case.

SHALLUNG: Hello, are you available?

They got in a cab, heading to the home of a Tibetan man who Lobsang had never met, but was going to stay with until he got on his feet.

TAXI DRIVER: We do have a choice, Lake Shore Drive or take the highway, get off at Western Avenue?

Lobsang was quiet on the way.

He stared out the window, his long fingers fiddling with the plastic bag in his lap.

It was rush hour, and there was a lot of traffic on Western.

A presumably Latino man walked between cars, selling white socks.

Lobsang turned to Shallung.

LOBSANG AND SHALLUNG: TIBETAN. He says he looks Tibetan. A lot of South Americans, at first blush, if you just look at them, you know, they look like someone you knew.

Only a few hundred Tibetans live in Chicago.

The first hundred came with special visas in the early 90s, and all lived in the same apartment building in Uptown.

Their community group, the Tibetan Alliance, is hosting the Dalai Lama’s visit next month.

They have a soccer team called the Chicago Nomads, which competes against Tibetan teams from elsewhere in the country and apparently always wins.


It’s pouring rain as Lobsang walks up to his new, temporary home for the first time.


The Disney Channel is on TV.

A big picture of the Dalai Lama hangs above it.

I’m Catrin Einhorn…Chicago Public Radio.