Illegal Chinese immigrants are confident of better life Jailed men were aboard smuggling ship

June 19, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

YORK, PENNSYLVANIA — YORK, Pa. -- The prison looks good to them. After four months crammed in the stinking hold of a tramp freighter, after a meager diet of rice and peanuts, after finally running aground June 6 on a New York City beach, 110 illegal Chinese immigrants find the tidy York County Prison a relief.

They are, after all, in America -- a place they've paid dearly to reach and a place in which they will now have to fight to stay.

"We obey the prison rules, and the police treat us very nicely," Liu Ghuan, a 31-year-old from Fuzhou, in Fujian province, says through an interpreter. He calls the guards "very warm."

"We are very happy to be here."

In the York prison, there is Wang Jar, father of four, three more children than the Chinese government allows.

A fugitive at 31 because of the size of his family, he managed to callhome from Thailand -- and learned that, to survive, his family had sold one of its few assets: his youngest son.

There is Mr. Cheng, a farmer, who says the Chinese government is so repressive that he and his friends could be arrested merely for playing mah-jongg, while people in power enjoy great privileges.

He asked that his full name not be used for fear authorities in China may punish his family.

And there is Mr. Liu, 31, who left behind two children and a pregnant wife because he could not afford the fine imposed when the family had more than one baby, in violation of the national law.

The men were among the more than 300 passengers of the inaptly named Golden Venture, the rusting ship that carried them 18,000 miles and dumped them in the cold, dark surf off Queens nearly two weeks ago.

Eight died. Many others, too weak to swim to shore, were rescued by a hastily assembled army that included firefighters, Coast Guard personnel and U.S. Park Police officers.

The beach that Sunday morning was suddenly filled with illegal aliens -- most with no belongings, some without even clothes -- shivering in blankets and waiting for authorities to take them away.

Far different reality

For this, smugglers charged the passengers about $30,000 each -- with down payments of about $5,000.

The rest, the immigrants say, must be paid over the next few years at interest rates as high as 5 percent a month.

If they do not repay, they have been told their families will be harmed.

But the men in the York prison say they're confident that they will pay off their debt and prosper.

"These Chinese in China are fed with images of an America that they see as really rich, a real land of opportunity," says JoAnn Lum, program director of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association in New York City. "They're told they'll be able to live here a few years and make a lot of money and live a great life."

The reality is far different. The immigrants are really indentured servants who will descend into the underground economy and spend years trying to pay off their debt, Ms. Lum says.

Unable to read or speak English, they are shunted into the worst jobs with the longest hours, with salaries as low as 70 cents an hour, she adds.

"They find that when the government does not enforce labor law, they become really vulnerable. And unscrupulous bosses, helped by the negligence of government, really exploit them."

But the men, buoyed by the age-old immigrants' hopes for a better future, can't imagine that.

"I have no regrets," Mr. Cheng, 27, says through an interpreter. "The situation in China is so bad that there's not much to lose."

"I'd rather die here than go back," Mr. Liu says. "There's nothing to go back to."

In Fuzhou, he was a skilled laborer, watching the burners in a brick factory. An uncle who emigrated years ago to New York owns a restaurant, Mr. Liu says, and he expects to work there.

But his uncle's phone number, which he held on to through the voyage, disappeared in the surf.

Still, he's sure he will find him.

'Democracy, freedom'

In China, Mr. Liu and his family were fugitives, fleeing Fujian for Canton because they had a second baby.

His family, aware the voyage was illegal and wildly expensive, told him he had no choice but to go. He expects the separation to be only temporary.

Mr. Cheng says he knows how to drive a diesel tractor but will do any "honest job."

He says he came here for the "democracy and freedom and humanity." If he is sent back, he will be severely punished, he says.

And Mr. Wang, who had a job in a Chengle fish market, had his work papers confiscated because he had too many children. If he can stay and work here, he says, he can send money home. If he is forced back to China, he won't be allowed to work. He'll face fines and punishment and worse, he says. "If I can't stay, I will have to go back and sell my children."

Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot predict how many of the illegal immigrants will be allowed to stay.

The immigrants' INS processing began on that beach in New York the morning they arrived, with the detainees divided into groups and bused to prisons that had room for new arrivals.

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