We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Huazhen Chen came to the United States seeking asylum. She came to the right country, but she may have picked the wrong state.

Huazhen Chen knew she’d been found out in September 1999, when the van pulled up outside her house. She would have run, she says, but there were too many of them. “I wanted to resist, but the men held me tightly,” she says through a translator. She remembers getting into the van and leaving her 2-year-old daughter behind, alone in the house. The next stop was the Langqi Township Hospital near the city of Fuzhou, in Fujian Province in southeast China. There, in Operating Room No. 4, she says, two men and two women held her down while a doctor terminated her 3-month-old pregnancy. The family-planning officials then fined her and her husband the cost of the abortion. At about $300, the penalty was three times her husband’s monthly income. Officials even gave Chen a receipt, which listed the purpose of the fine as “Huazhen Chen’s violation of family planning [laws].”

Chen, 27, knew the punishment for violating China’s one-child policy when she and her husband decided to try to conceive a boy. But she and her husband believed that the potential payoff was worth the risk. It wouldn’t matter that the boy, as a second child, would not have received state benefits, such as a free education. “A son takes care of parents” when they are old, explains Chen.

After the forced abortion, Chen says, she went to stay with her mother on the other side of town. Through her husband and his aunt, she heard that family-planning officials, back home in Langqi, were looking for her to forcibly sterilize her. Chen says she believed she had no choice but to flee. Her mother asked friends and relatives to help smuggle her out of the country.

Traveling with a handful of other people, Chen says she left for Vietnam, then Cambodia and Malaysia. In Malaysia, her smugglers gave her a fake Japanese passport that her mother had bought for her in China. She then flew to Japan and on to her final destination: the United States. She didn’t know where she was going, exactly. All she knew was that she had relatives somewhere in the country.

In December 1999, Chen arrived at Dulles International Airport with no identification except her fake passport. Airport officials quickly figured out that her documents were no good. When threatened with deportation, Chen, who speaks no English, says she managed to convey that she’d had a forced abortion and that she was fleeing. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials detained her. An asylum commissioner determined that Chen had a credible fear of returning to China. But in July 2000, an immigration judge in Arlington denied her asylum claim—a decision that her lawyers are appealing. In the meantime, the INS has shuffled Chen through four Virginia jails, where she mixes with convicted criminals and, because of her inability to speak English, sometimes struggles with the basics of daily living.

If Chen had gotten off the plane in Boston, Baltimore, or Chicago, she might have had a better chance of being granted asylum, according to Executive Office for Immigration Review statistics. And, her lawyers argue, she might have been free by now. Chen has no criminal record. She has relatives and friends in Ohio and New York who are willing to take her in and make sure she appears for future hearings. If she doesn’t, she may lose her chance of ever getting asylum or of bringing her husband and daughter to the States.

Under INS rules, agency officials are encouraged to release asylum-seekers like Chen while their claims are making their way through the courts. But the Washington district director, Warren A. Lewis, who has the ultimate say over its detainees, and his subordinates refuse to let Chen out.

Local immigration lawyers complain that the Washington district is one of the least accommodating in the country when it comes to releasing asylum-seekers. “We have been disappointed with the release rate,” says Deborah Ann Sanders, executive director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Attorney Madeline Fain Ellis puts it more pointedly: “If this were World War II and the Jews came to Virginia without documentation, we would take them from the airport and throw them in detention.”

Unless INS officials reconsider Chen’s parole request, her attorneys say, she could remain in jail for as long as another two years.

Chen’s troubles stem not just from her point of arrival, but also from her point of origin. Most of the Chinese smuggled into the United States come from Fujian. Some experts say they leave to escape poverty; others say those who leave are middle-class Chinese seeking to strike it rich abroad. Whatever the reason, the province’s name has become a byword for false asylum claims. According to INS officials, smugglers often coach their charges to claim asylum on the basis of fear of persecution under China’s birth policies.

In 1999, 4,153 Chinese immigrants applied for asylum, and more than half that number cited persecution under China’s one-child policy, according to INS spokesperson Bill Strassberger. The INS granted asylum to 943 of those applicants and denied 379. The agency didn’t process all 4,153 applicants by the end of the fiscal year. Of the Chinese applicants the INS processed, 24 percent received asylum, says Strassberger.

Asylum claims like Chen’s turn largely on credibility. Although there has been increasing sympathy for the plight of women facing gender-specific persecution abroad, in recent weeks, judges and immigration officials have been given a reason to be extra cautious: the case of Adelaide Abankwah.

Abankwah sought asylum claiming that she would face genital mutilation if she returned to her village in Ghana, despite the fact that Ghana had outlawed the practice in 1994. After an immigration judge denied her asylum claim and INS officials denied her parole, her case attracted support; feminists have been bringing attention to the practice of genital mutilation since the ’80s. Luminaries such as writer and editor Gloria Steinem and then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton took up Abankwah’s cause. A federal appeals court granted her asylum, freeing her after two years in prison. But INS officials kept digging. In August 1999, they reported that the woman calling herself Abankwah was really a former hotel worker from Ghana named Regina Norman Danson; Danson had obtained a stolen passport. The real Abankwah was a Ghanaian student studying in the United States, who eventually figured out someone else was using her name. The rest of Danson’s story proved to be as false as her identity.

The problem in Chen’s case wasn’t a question of identity. Her mother sent documents to verify that. And relatives and friends vouched for Chen at asylum hearings. The problem, Chen’s lawyers contend, lay instead with the secretiveness and arbitrariness of the local immigration judge and the INS officials handling her case.

Within months of Chen’s detention by the INS, Chen’s asylum claim went before Judge Joan Churchill in Arlington, one of the busier immigration courts in the country (after the three major ports of entry: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco). As is often the case in Virginia, Chen’s May asylum hearing was held by video conference while Chen remained in prison in Piedmont, Va. The judge, the translator, the witnesses, and Chen’s attorneys—pro bono lawyers from American University’s Washington School of Law human rights clinic—were all in Arlington. (Judges decide whether to use video conferencing on a case-by-case basis, and attorneys can request that their client appear in person, says Board of Immigration Appeals [BIA] spokesperson Rick Kenny.) “The video conferencing plus the language barrier produced confusion during the hearing,” says Chen’s lawyer Shelley Thompson. Thompson notes that except for direct questions, none of the proceeding was translated for Chen.

Citing U.S. State Department documents, INS attorneys tried to poke holes in Chen’s story by arguing that Fujian family-planning officials had scaled back enforcement of the one-child policy. John Aird disagrees with the State Department’s report. A former senior research specialist on China for the Bureau of the Census, he has tracked China’s birth policies for the past 40 years.

Aird says he found Chen’s account of being taken away in a van consistent with his research. “It’s usually a gang situation. They try to come in large numbers in case the neighbors come to her rescue,” he says. That Chen and her husband would try to have a son also sounded credible: “Only 5.9 percent of rural Chinese have some kind of social security. If they don’t have a son to look after them when they get old, they have nothing. That’s the single biggest reason for resistance [to the one-child policy] in rural areas.” Aird testified on Chen’s behalf at her hearing.

Chen’s mother had sent plenty of supporting documentation, including the receipt for the fine that Chen and her husband had paid and another document certifying the abortion. But Churchill questioned whether officials would have given Chen a receipt if the abortion had been involuntary.

According to Aird, officials do give out such receipts. But he notes that anyone can buy such documents. At Churchill’s suggestion, INS attorneys contacted experts at the U.S. State Department and asked them to authenticate the documents. The State Department was unable to verify the receipts but also did not deem them fakes.

In the end, Churchill chose to believe the State Department report of scaled-back enforcement. She concluded that Chen’s fears of persecution upon her return were overblown, and she denied Chen asylum. Chen’s case now goes to the BIA.

In October 1998, the word came down from Michael A. Pearson, then executive associate commissioner in charge of field operations for INS, that “although parole is discretionary in all cases where it is available, it is INS policy to favor release of aliens found to have a credible fear of persecution provided that they do not pose a risk of flight or danger to the community.”

Chen, one of about 300 aliens currently being detained by the Washington district office, seemed to meet all the requirements Pearson had laid out. Last February, her lawyers asked the Washington office, which has jurisdiction over detention of aliens in Virginia, to parole Chen. As immigration lawyers say commonly happens, INS officials did not respond. In August, her lawyers tried again; they again received no response. Finally, in October, local INS officials denied Chen parole in writing, calling her a flight risk because she had arrived with false papers. (Last year, one out of five paroled aliens did not return for further immigration status hearings, according to INS statistics.) Her attorneys scoff at that explanation, because virtually all asylum-seekers arrive without proper papers.

Following INS policy, Strassberger declines to comment on the specifics of Chen’s case but notes that INS officials could have had a number of reasons beyond her fake passport for pegging Chen as a flight risk. For example, the friends and relatives who are willing to take her in live outside the Washington jurisdiction; another concern could have been the fact that she was smuggled here. “If there’s a suspicion that someone is part of a smuggling process, [INS officials] may feel it’s more likely they’ll never see that person again,” says Strassberger. “[Illegal aliens] pay smugglers $30,000 to $50,000, with a minimal down payment, and end up working it off in a sweatshop. The person arriving has nothing to lose if released, and smugglers put pressure on them to pay back the money.”

Chen says she knows nothing about paying back the smugglers and that her mother made all the arrangements. Her lawyers add that if INS officials have concerns about the smugglers or her relatives, they should say so explicitly.

Immigration lawyers argue that because INS district directors have discretion over detaining asylum-seekers, their decisions can be somewhat arbitrary, and there is not enough consistency when it comes to granting parole. “You have people in some jurisdictions deciding one thing and some in other jurisdictions deciding another for people in the same situation,” Ellis says. “The worst part of it is, there is no chance for review of parole decisions outside the INS for arriving aliens.”

The INS doesn’t have statistics comparing detention rates across districts, but according to Strassberger, the majority of asylum-seekers are released on parole pending their hearings.

Asylum-seekers, including Chen, may soon have a new recourse: The INS recently issued a rule that broadens the number of agency officials who can grant parole. The regulation was supposed to take effect on Jan. 29—though whether it will is unclear now because President Bush has frozen new regulations until the new attorney general can review them, says Strassberger. Chen’s lawyers have asked INS officials to reconsider her case, but they aren’t optimistic. “At this point, I just don’t count on anything from INS,” says attorney Colleen Rank.

“Why are they keeping me here?” Chen says, hunched in a green jumpsuit inside an interview room at Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell, Va. When she speaks, she wrings her small, slender hands. She says she receives letters now and then from home. Her mother is taking care of her daughter. And her husband, scared that family-planning officials will punish him further, moves often.

“I feel lonely because I can’t talk to anyone,” Chen says, starting to cry. “When I was in China, I thought America was so nice. Since I got here, I think it’s a different story.” When asked, however, if she regrets fleeing, she replies, “No.” CP