by NINA BERNSTEIN
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 United States citizen, 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 Golden Venture 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, Tex., and Greensboro, Ga., and 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. Another 50 or so disappeared after being released on bail earlier in the 1990’s, while about as many have won asylum or citizenship.
Another 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, Mr. Dong was detained, beaten, fined and sterilized, he said in an account corroborated by medical tests and court documents. He returned to America in 1999 by plane through Los Angeles 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, however, 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,” Mr. Dong, 47, said through a translator in a recent 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.”
Meanwhile, his second-born daughter, now 21, has opened a new chapter in the Golden Venture odyssey, leaving the Chinese village where she said others looked down on her impoverished family, to seek her father and her fortune in America.
Another chapter in the story was closed only last month, when a Chinatown businesswoman who calls herself Sister Ping was sentenced to 35 years in prison for organizing and financing the voyage.
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 Clinton ordered the release of the last 53 passengers still detained.
There were scenes of jubilation as Mr. Ming and others left the prison in York, Pa., where an unlikely coalition of anti-abortion evangelicals, feminists and volunteer lawyers had held daily vigils for their release. 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 vast majority, including Mr. Ming, tried but failed.
Mr. Ming went to work for take-out restaurants in a rough section of Brooklyn, braving beatings and robberies, he said, 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. It became the catalyst for a private bill repeatedly introduced in Congress by Representative Todd Russell Platts, Republican of Pennsylvania, seeking permanent legal status for 31 men in the York contingent who had not won asylum. The bill has little chance of passing, but has provided some temporary protection for Mr. Ming and the others.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Beverly Church, a paralegal who credits her late Irish grandfather for inspiring her, a staunch Republican, to keep fighting for the 31 men she began visiting at the York prison years ago. She helped Peter Cohn, a documentary filmmaker, contact many of them, and on April 26 they will be reunited in New York at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas before the film’s first showing that night at the TriBeCa Film Festival.
All 31 have been vetted at least twice by the Department of Homeland Security, the local police, the F.B.I. and Interpol, Ms. Church pointed out, sharing a book compiled from the official immigration reports on each man, and the handwritten notes and color snapshots they send her.
Many show children the men left behind in China, and cannot visit. Some are teenagers turning into grown-ups. Others are babies or toddlers, like Mr. Ming’s sons, United States citizens who were sent back to China through intermediaries to be raised by their grandparents until they could attend public school in the United States.
“Initially I was having so big a hope,” Mr. 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.”
In contrast, for a half-dozen minors on the Golden Venture who were placed in foster care on Long Island, America soon became a safe harbor. Most of the four or five taken into the foster home of Patricia Yacullo, in Deer Park, who were 16 or 17, won special juvenile green cards before they turned 21. Three, whom she nicknamed Charlie, Paul and Tim, stayed with her and her husband, Tony, a retired construction worker, until they could establish American lives.
Both Paul and Charlie, who still call Ms. Yacullo “Mom,” are now citizens. Paul, originally Cheng Wu Lin, owns the Red Lantern Restaurant and Tea Bar in Cherry Hill, N.J., where a New York Times food critic found the hot and sour soup “ethereal.” He is now president of a company with a second Red Lantern in Chicago, and plans for a chain.
Charlie, or Si Lun Cheng, has a wholesale handbag business on West 29th Street in Manhattan. On holidays he takes his two children to visit Ms. Yacullo, 66, who is diabetic and legally blind.
“She treat me like her own kids,” said Mr. Cheng, his eyes glistening as he stood among cartons of handbags from China. After working in a garment factory and in a post office, he went into business, and recently bought his first home in Bayside, Queens, where he and his wife sought good schools for their son, 7, and daughter, 5.
“My son speak full English,” he said proudly, glancing at his parents, who speak only Chinese, but have helped keep the store open seven days a week since he sponsored them to join him two years ago.
Yet even in this lucky group, some lost out. Ms. Yacullo still laments that the young man she calls Tim turned 21 before his green card came through. Despite her payments to several lawyers, she said, he is stranded without legal status, with no road to citizenship and no way to reunite his family. Still, she added, he owns a restaurant in Georgia, is married and has American children.
“He’s done great,” she said. “We need more kids like that.”
Back in China’s Fujian province, being the child of a Golden Venture passenger was a misfortune, recalled H. L. Dong, the daughter who followed her father to the United States.
Other absent fathers soon sent money home, transforming the lives of their families. Tile floors replaced beaten earth; daughters wore pretty clothes and could go to high school. But her family, which had its sewing machine confiscated when the birth-control police came looking for her father, only grew more indebted, she said. Her father left when she was about 5, took almost three years to reach America, and languished in detention another three.
Her journey, by air on a false passport, took only 10 days. But as her mother feared, she was caught crossing the Mexican border. Remembering her father’s description of Chinese prison, she was pleasantly surprised. “I was not tortured,” she said, looking very young in jeans and a pink top.
Relatives arranged bond, and now she waits tables 10 hours a day at a Chinese restaurant in Maryland with a $5, all-you-can-eat lunch, trying to pay off her $65,000 smuggling debt. Her father has worked in 10 similar restaurants in six different states, and in Arkansas now. He spends his day off alone, watching TV. For both, the only path to legal status is Mr. Dong’s asylum petition, now stuck among thousands of immigration appeals overwhelming the federal courts, said their lawyer, Peter Lobel.
But they both return to New York’s Chinatown, where survivors of the Golden Venture often recognize each other in the street, and share their experience of America.
“I just have this feeling about how America should be,” Ms. Dong said with a laugh. “It should be as good as heaven, otherwise why do so many people want to come here?”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company