It was nearly 20 years ago that a rickety old freighter known as the Golden Venture ran aground off Fort Tilden in the Rockaways with its cargo of nearly 300 Chinese immigrants entering the country illegally.
By 2 a.m. on June 6, 1993, while most of New York City slept, a small army of first responders, including the NYPD, FDNY, U.S. Coast Guard, federal immigration officials and others raced to the beach and were greeted by a sight none could forget.
"What I remember was a surrealistic scene," said NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who also happened to be commissioner at the time. "I saw people jumping off the ship, the lights coming from our blue harbor launches . . . had a blue hue to it. It had this weird feeling of these blue lights and people jumping off the ship."High above the scene was William Mundy of East Meadow, then a crew chief in a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, who watched in horror as passengers jumped from the 150-foot vessel into the frigid water. Passengers, weakened by malnourishment from a four-month trip around Africa, had been told by the smugglers to jump from the ship, and many did, clothes wrapped in watertight plastic.
"People were so emaciated they just couldn't swim any further and were slipping under water," Mundy recalled.
By dawn, the scene on the beach was of hundreds of passengers who either swam ashore or were taken by police launch. They were a huddled, wet mass trying to keep warm under blankets. In all, 276 Chinese passengers (including some smugglers) and 13 Indonesian crewmen were taken into custody by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A handful are believed to have made it to Chinatown. Rescuers retrieved six dead from the water -- four more corpses would be found days later.
The Golden Venture incident became a metaphor for the U.S. immigration problems of the day. It underscored how porous the U.S. border had become, with migrants without legal papers brazenly coming over at will.
In response, the Clinton administration vowed to go after human smugglers and took a tough line with the passengers, who fell into an immigration limbo where some remain to this day.
Asylum claims denied
Immigration judges gave a hard look at the migrants' claims that they had fled China because of its one-child policy, denying virtually all of their asylum claims.
But as the anniversary of the ship's landing approaches, apart from articles in New York's Chinese press, there is virtually nothing recalling the incident. No monument or plaque marks the site, which today is just a quiet beachfront scoured last fall by superstorm Sandy.
Yet the Golden Venture episode wrought some changes and impacted U.S. immigration policy over the years. It also sparked a profound change in the local populace around York, Pa., where 52 of the male passengers were sent. A generally conservative and anti-abortion group, citizens of York became outraged when they learned of the way the men were being treated, with little access to experienced legal counsel and having their asylum cases, based on China's one-child policy, rushed through the immigration courts.
"People had been oblivious but began to hear the [passengers'] stories," said the Rev. Joan Maruskin, who helped organize support for the immigrants.
Constant lobbying of the White House and Congress by the York activists eventually helped prod Clinton in 1997 to grant the 52 men in York as well as four other passengers humanitarian parole, said Beverly Church, a paralegal who remains involved with the immigrants.
"Every single man on parole has made a positive impact on the community," Maruskin said.
Michael Chan, now 39, was just 19 when he arrived on the smuggling ship. He was one of the men released by Clinton and is running his own Chinese restaurant in Ohio. "We are doing fine, hanging in, it could be better," Chan said in a phone interview.
According to Church, one continuing problem for Chan is that he is technically in deportation, and without a green card he said he can't leave the state for more than two days and is subject to checks by immigration officials. It is a situation that Chan said makes him feel like a criminal. On top of that, his children, ages 7 and 10, want to go to Disney World, something he can't do because of the restrictions, said Chan.
"You feel so guilty," said Chan, who is among 21 passengers on a list waiting years for a private congressional bill granting permanent residency.
"They just want to get on with their lives," said Mary Weaver, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center in York.
Over the years, immigrant smuggling has changed, particularly for the Chinese, who now hardly ever come to the United States on smuggling ships. Those who do arrive by water come in small boatloads from the Caribbean. Many prefer to come on regular flights with fraudulent documents or claiming political asylum, said former INS investigator James Goldman, now a consultant in Florida.
"The days of the big landing have come and gone," Goldman said. "One of biggest ways to smuggle Chinese into the U.S. has always been and will always be fraudulent documentation."
Options in other countries
Chinese migrants also now have other options to work abroad without the hassles of having to go into bondage to pay smugglers to enter the United States.
"Why pay a smuggler $50,000, when you are in Venezuela and Argentina, working," said immigration attorney Kerry Bretz, a former INS trial attorney.
Ironically, few if any of the Golden Venture passengers who have been allowed to remain in the United States settled in New York.
There is one monument of sorts to the Golden Venture. It is a tombstone at the Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, N.J., marking the site where the bodies of six unidentified passengers from the ship are buried.