For more than two months, 88 Chinese, flown 7,000 miles to the United States on a government plane, have been trapped here in a refugee's Catch-22: The U.S. government believes they might face persecution if sent back to China but is afraid they might face indentured servitude if released in the United States.

So the detainees sit in the only place that can guarantee their safety--a maximum-security jail in this remote location in southern Illinois. On good days, they are permitted an hour of exercise in a fenced-off area that resembles a dog run. They watch television in a language they don't understand. Some sleep on mattresses on a concrete floor in order to stay together.

Officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service had set out to use the case of the 88 Chinese as a model for how the asylum process should work. On June 4, the government flew the Chinese from the Northern Mariana Islands to Los Angeles to allow them to apply for asylum. The Chinese were excited at the prospect of freedom. Instead, they found themselves in prison.

"We were really happy until we got off the plane," explained one woman, describing how they were put in shackles and handcuffs when their plane touched down in Los Angeles.

The INS planned to quickly release many of the detainees to privately run shelters. But agency officials became convinced that the Chinese were in danger of being forced into New York sweatshops and restaurants to repay debts as high as $40,000 to the smugglers who arranged their passage out of China.

David Venturella, associate commissioner for detention and deportation, said last week that the INS intends to keep the Chinese locked in Ullin until they can present their asylum claims to administrative law judges. Venturella said those hearings are planned to take place in Ullin and will take several months.

Representatives of pro bono organizations are concerned that some asylum seekers will not find qualified attorneys for the hearings. "I'd be shocked if they all end up with attorneys in Ullin," said Mary McClenahan, a lawyer with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in New York. "And I think the result will be that some will lose valid cases and be deported."

The Chinese in Ullin were among more than 400 immigrants from Fujian province who were on boats arranged by smugglers that were intercepted by U.S. officials in April. They were taken to Tinian Island, one of the Northern Marianas. There they were held in tents for more than a month and interviewed to determine which ones appeared to have viable cases for asylum--a well-founded fear of persecution if sent back to China.

Those who passed that hurdle were taken to Ullin. They include 35 women, 53 men and one boy. The boy, 17, is the only person from the group who has been released from the facility. He was transferred to a youth shelter in Chicago after the INS concluded that he had been improperly held for weeks in the adult facility.

After the Chinese arrived in Ullin, INS officials contacted groups active in supporting asylum-seekers and sought to enlist their efforts to ensure that the Chinese did not languish behind bars. To help the detainees with their asylum applications, the INS agreed to pay for pro bono attorneys from as far away as New York and Arizona to travel to Ullin. The attorneys lined up shelters in various cities that were willing to house the detainees while their asylum applications were pending.

But late last month, the plan went awry. The INS learned that smugglers had contacted family members of the detainees, seeking payment. The shelter releases were scrapped.

Venturella explained that in "normal cases" the detainees could have expected to be released pending asylum hearings. But, he said, these detainees had "direct association with smuggling organizations."

"That makes their plight a little different than people who come to airports, present themselves with no documents and say they wanted asylum," Venturella added. That difference, he said, "not only put themselves in jeopardy, it put those associated with them in jeopardy as well."

The INS decision angered officials who spent weeks in Ullin assisting the detainees. Mary Margaret McCarthy, director of the Midwest Immigrant Rights Project, last week called the INS position "totally outrageous."

"Many if not all of these people have strong asylum claims," McCarthy said. "Yet they are locked up and isolated in a small town with no access to legal resources."

The Tri-County Justice & Detention Center sits alongside a soybean field, off the interstate 30 miles south of Carbondale. The facility, designed to hold 208 inmates, was opened in January to replace three deteriorating county jails.

It was mostly empty until the INS began sending immigrants to the jail, paying slightly more than $45 per night for each detainee. The agency decided to send the Chinese to Ullin because there was enough space to house all 88 together.

The jail is operated by GRW Corp. of Nashville, which is owned by Gil R. Walker, a former oilman.

Walker has hired Chinese translators to work round-the-clock, so the detainees can communicate with the guards and others. Even so, the jail was not fully prepared. An unfamiliar menu caused periodic intestinal discomfort. Walker and his administrator had to run to Wal-Mart for such items as women's underwear. The women were housed in a dormitory that included four local prisoners. The jail had no outside exercise area.

"I wish I could do more for them," Walker said.

The detainees gave a variety of reasons for fleeing Fujian: forced sterilization or abortion, religious persecution, forced marriage and domestic abuse.

They were told about a boat to the United States, they told a reporter recently. They would be welcomed and offered the chance to earn enough money to repay the smugglers who arranged the trip, they were told. The detainees--who asked for anonymity out of fear for their safety--were taken out to sea at night in small boats that unloaded them onto a larger vessel. They spent most of the next two weeks in the hold, racked by nausea and seasickness and subsisting on rice.

Then U.S. officials intercepted the boat, and the Chinese were taken to Tinian, where they waited in their tents. One day officials called out their names, and each was put onto a bus and was told the group was being sent to the United States.

They were flown to Los Angeles and ultimately were taken to another plane, to Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois, and then onto a bus to the prison.

Wendy Young, staff lawyer for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, said, "The INS is right to be concerned about smugglers. But the appropriate response to smuggling is not to further victimize the victims by placing them into indefinite detention."

If the Chinese are likely to still face threats from smugglers if they win asylum, "what is the INS going to do?" asked Young. "Sentence them to life in prison to keep them safe?"

This report was made possible by support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.