People of the Golden Vision Unlikely activists take up the cause of imprisoned Chinese refugees

July 23, 1995|By Maryalice Yakutchik | Maryalice Yakutchik,Special to The Sun

York, Pa. -- A cloud of dust and pollen rises above a field of overgrown weeds as Birkenstocks, Reeboks and Docksiders tap the parched earth, keeping time to the strumming of a guitar. A 6-month-old wriggles his bare toes in delight at the music, alternately sucking his thumb and squealing in his father's pierced ear. The baby's grandparents beam at his antics.

As protests go, it doesn't look like much. Just a dozen or so people in T-shirts and shorts gathered across from the York County prison to pray, sing and strategize.

It is their commitment rather than their numbers that make these activists remarkable. Sunday after Sunday, they have endured wilting heat and bone-chilling cold to stand for one hour where they can be seen by 108 Chinese refugees being held across the street.

For two years, ever since the freighter Golden Venture ran aground near New York harbor, the refugees have languished inside the prison, awaiting deportation back to China or political asylum in the United States.

Their plight has transformed the lives of a small band of York residents. It has made them question their government, live out their faith and devote hundreds of hours of their time to free a group of people they didn't know and still have difficulty communicating with.

Housewife and lawyer, conservative and liberal, fundamentalist and New Ager, these are the People of the Golden Vision. Today, they will gather in the field across from the prison for the 100th consecutive Sunday, an ordinary group of men and women who refuse to give up on their crusade for justice.

"These are just average-Joe Americans, not people who go around with save-the-whales T-shirts and save-the-rain-forests T-shirts, wondering what's the next cause they can sign up for," says Craig Trebilcock, one of Golden Vision's activists. "These are people from the heartland who feel their government has gone astray."

2 Change of heart

No one in York, a conservative, blue-collar city of 42,000, had much sympathy for the Chinese detainees when they were brought here in June 1993.

Like most people in town, Craig Trebilcock figured they were a bunch of illegal aliens trying to steal jobs from Americans. "I had a pretty jaded attitude," says Mr. Trebilcock, 35, who comes from a family of United Auto Worker union members in Michigan.

He could understand why people would flee a communist regime. He had spent three years as an Army defense lawyer at a base in West Germany and was there when the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989.

Still, he didn't have any burning desire to help the Chinese. And he didn't know a thing about immigration law.

In the Army, Mr. Trebilcock defended soldiers accused of everything from insubordination to espionage. As an associate at the York law firm of Stock and Leader, he mostly represented people injured in car accidents.

But the Chinese refugees had to have lawyers to represent them. The Immigration and Naturalization Service asked members of the York County Bar Association to donate their services. The INS estimated it would take about eight to 16 hours to represent each refugee from start to finish.

Jeff Lobach, the bar association president at the time, assembled 30 attorneys and paralegals. None of the lawyers had ever handled an immigration case before. Mr. Lobach himself chose a client, Wang Li Bin, because he could pronounce the name.

Mr. Trebilcock was drafted as the coordinator of the pro-bono program.

His first client was 28-year-old Pin Lin, who said he had fled his village in the coastal province of Fujian after resisting the forced sterilization of his wife.

She was still in bed, having just given birth to the couple's second child, when the local authorities arrived and demanded that she be sterilized. Pin Lin tried to stop them as they were dragging her out the door, and his parents and neighbors jumped in to help. A melee ensued.

Afterward, Pin Lin and his family went into hiding. He spent a year scraping together about $3,000, enough to book passage on the Golden Venture. He would owe another $27,000 after reaching the United States.

For four months, he and 284 other immigrants lived in the ship's hold, subsisting on rations of rice and peanuts as the steamer made its way to the United States. It nearly capsized once in the raging seas off the Cape of Good Hope. Then the boat ran aground just a few tantalizing miles from New York. Ten immigrants died in the desperate swim to shore.

But their ordeal wasn't close to being over. Pin Lin and about half his shipmates -- all men -- found themselves jailed in southeastern Pennsylvania. The rest of the refugees, including 18 women, were divided among prisons in Winchester, Va.; Bakersfield, Calif.; and New York City.

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