Golden Venture immigrants' journeys still unfolding


NEW YORK -- They all journeyed to America on the Golden Venture, a rusty freighter crammed with 286 Chinese immigrants when it ran aground off Queens on the night of June 6, 1993.

But a father of three who was seeking asylum from China's one-child policy was deported back and forcibly sterilized. A teenager seeking adventure became a U.S. citizen and proud owner of a New Jersey restaurant praised for its translucent dumplings. And a man who swam the last 300 yards through cold, rough surf was suddenly ordered a decade later to report for deportation, with a warning to bring no more than 44 pounds of luggage, though by then he had his own business and two children born in New York.

Almost 13 years after the Golden Venture shuddered to a stop and set off a national argument about illegal immigration, the last of its smugglers has just been sent to prison, as the debate rages again. Ten passengers died that night in a frantic swim for freedom; six of those who made it to shore escaped without a trace. But for the rest, their journeys are still unfolding in widely disparate ways, buffeted by the shifting rules and often arbitrary results of America's immigration wars.

Whether they had come to escape persecution or just to seek a better life, nearly all were detained and quickly ordered deported, as the Clinton administration reversed previous practice in an effort to deter illegal immigrants and their smugglers. Yet today, a great majority of the Golden Venture passengers are living and working in the United States, most with no certainty that they can stay. Of the 110 who were actually deported, often after years in detention, at least half have returned illegally, including the father of three who was sterilized.

And as Congress again grapples with how to turn back illegal immigrants and deal with those already here, the passengers' fates show the limits of enforcement and the far-reaching human consequences of any new twist or turn in the immigration system.

Although the details and whereabouts of many of the passengers remain sketchy, interviews with passengers, lawyers and longtime activists in the case, and a documentary filmmaker who spent two years tracking their experiences, paint a picture of bittersweet striving against a backdrop of growing insecurity.

They are scattered from Brooklyn to Austin, Texas, and Greensboro, Ga. Even some without legal status have worked their way up from delivering Chinese takeout to owning their own businesses and homes. Some have American-born children with names like Steven, Wendy and Jack. Others, still renting bunk beds, faithfully send money back to the families they have not seen for 15 years. Yet increasingly, they live in fear of arrest and deportation.

About 220 Golden Venture passengers are living in the United States, according to those who have followed them most closely. Fifty-three of them were released from prison with great fanfare in 1997 but are left, with few exceptions, in a precarious legal limbo. Fifty or so others disappeared after being released on bail earlier in the 1990s, while about as many have won asylum or citizenship.

About 60 who have sneaked back into the United States after being deported include Y.C. Dong, the father who was held in a Pennsylvania prison for three years as he appealed an immigration judge's 1993 ruling that he did not qualify for asylum because his fear of persecution under China's one-child policy was only "subjective."

As soon as he was deported to China in 1996, Dong was detained, beaten, fined and sterilized, he said in an account corroborated by medical tests and court documents. He returned to the United States in 1999 with a false passport, having borrowed $50,000 from relatives to pay smugglers - twice what he paid the first time - and reapplied for asylum. So far, his petitions have been automatically rejected on the ground that he already had his day in court in 1993.

"I almost feel that my life is out of hope," Dong, 47, said through a translator in a telephone interview from Arkansas, where he works 72 hours a week as a cook at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurant. "But I still hope one day I will live freely in this country."

Lin Yan Ming, 35, who swam the last 300 yards to shore, spent the next three years and eight months in jail - until February 1997, when President Bill Clinton ordered the release of the last 53 passengers still detained.

But after the passengers dropped from the headlines, it became clear that most were still in danger of deportation because the release had not given them legal status. A few went on to win asylum, but a majority, including Ming, tried but failed.

Ming went to work for takeout restaurants in Brooklyn, as he saved enough to buy his own business, marry and have two sons. Then, seven years after his release, he received a deportation letter.

"Initially I was having so big a hope," Ming said, referring to proposals for guest-worker programs that could legalize millions of immigrants. "But they have been saying it for so long. It's like very big thunder, and the rain that comes out is a small rain."

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