Chinese refugees on hunger strike 100 are held in York, Pa., jail pending hearings

August 22, 1993|By Pam Belluck | Pam Belluck,Knight-Ridder News Service

Nearly 100 illegal Chinese immigrants who came ashore in June when the smuggling ship Golden Venture ran aground off New York are staging a hunger strike at a jail in York, Pa.

The Chinese say the strike, which began Wednesday night, is to protest the fact that U.S. immigration judges have denied political asylum to almost every one of the immigrants who has had a hearing so far.

The immigrants and their lawyers -- mostly volunteers -- say the hearings have been so rushed that they have little time to prepare their cases and that the immigration judges are predisposed to deny asylum in all but the most egregious cases.

At the hearings, the immigrants say, they tell their stories of facing forced sterilization or forced abortions in China, or of being detained by authorities for giving birth to more than one child. Immigration judges have ruled that most of those accounts are either not credible or don't constitute political persecution.

The hunger strike began Wednesday night. By Friday, about 95 of the 117 Chinese in the York County Jail had stopped eating and some had stopped drinking water, said the Rev. Allen Chang of the Lancaster Mennonite Chinese Church, who has been ministering to the Chinese since they arrived at the jail after the Golden Venture's shipwreck June 6.

"They are so down and depressed about the hearings," said Mr. Chang, who has urged the Chinese to eat. "They are willing to hurt themselves if it means that they might have a better chance of not being sent back to China. They would rather die here than go there. Until they get some good news, I know they will keep it up."

Warden Thomas Hogan said the prisoners were getting regular medical checkups. "If they choose not to eat, that's fine with me," Mr. Hogan said Friday. "If someone needs medical attention, then I'll have to call the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service]."

The 117 immigrants are being held in a new cellblock, separated from other prisoners in the maximum-security jail.

"We are trying to get sympathy from the immigration people. We are under the impression that the judges all have preconceived ideas," said the 25-year-old, who gave the name "Ming Cheng" and said he did not want his real name used for fear of reprisals from the Chinese government. Ming Cheng, he said, was a pen name he used when he was writing articles for a Chinese student newspaper. He said he was denied asylum in a hearing last month.

Ming Cheng was one of the 285 Chinese who survived the harrowing 100-day trip on the Golden Venture, crammed on wooden benches, given only a few sips of water each day and forced to brave severe ocean storms. When the ship ran aground off New York City, eight of the passengers died jumping overboard. The rest were detained at jails in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

Before the Golden Venture ran aground, Chinese were much more likely to gain asylum here, according to INS figures. Last year, 243 of 284 Chinese who sought political asylum were allowed to stay in this country, said INS spokesman Verne Jervis.

In large part, this was due to a 1989 executive order that gave Chinese special consideration if they said they were involved in pro-democracy movements, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, or were victims of China's draconian population control policies.

Despite that executive order, most of the Golden Venture passengers are being told to go home. Of 257 who have had immigration hearings, only six have been given asylum, Mr. Jervis said. Some are still waiting for a judge's decision, but most of them have been ordered back to China. Most have appealed and won't get deported till their appeals are exhausted.

If they are sent back, immigration officials say, the Golden Venture group and others like them will likely be fined by the Chinese government or even sent to labor camps.

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