Dozens of men and women who survived an odyssey that took them from China to New York City remain legally stranded 20 years after the Golden Venture freighter used to smuggle them ran aground off the Rockaways.
Those immigrants have scattered throughout the United States and are not speaking out on Thursday's anniversary of the stranding, but advocates say it's time to grant them legal status after decades of hard work and close supervision by immigration authorities.
"The time is long overdue for them to be accepted into our society and to let them know these are the kind of people we want to be fellow Americans, because they have paid their dues," said Zehao Zhou, a York College of Pennsylvania research librarian who was their interpreter. "They were victims of a dictatorial, totalitarian society."
Vincent Picard, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, said he could not comment on the status of Golden Venture immigrants, who must report regularly to immigration agents but are not tracked as a group.
Advocates said many live in fear of deportation.
A private bill to legalize 26 of them stalled last year in a House subcommittee and has not been reintroduced. However, a Senate aide involved in drafting a comprehensive immigration bill said Golden Venture immigrants with supervision orders would be able to apply for permanent residency under that proposal.
Advocates don't want these immigrants' fate to depend on a major overhaul of the system.
"We cannot have a one-size-fits-all policy," said Beverly Purcell-Church, an advocate in Port St. Lucie, Fla. "You never hear about a path for these souls who went through this harrowing journey."
The arrival of the tramp steamer with about 300 people on June 6, 1993, became the focus of intense debate over "snakehead," or gangster, smuggling.
The landing triggered a tightening in asylum processing, leading to detentions and deportations as the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Clinton administration cracked down on smuggling.
Eventually, Golden Venture cases and ensuing provisions in a federal law set an easier standard for future asylum-seekers fleeing China's one-child policy, said Stanley Mark, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan who represented some of those immigrants.
The resulting policy "explicitly allowed for challenges to family planning policy to be grounds for asylum requests," Mark said.
The fate of individuals on the ship, though, varied.
As many as 10 died on the way and six died as they tried to swim to shore. At least six were thought to have made it to land and escaped. Some minors were placed with foster families while they awaited asylum hearings.
The bulk of the immigrants were detained for deportation. More than 100 were transferred to a jail in York County, Pa.; others were held in New Jersey, Virginia and Louisiana.
Dozens were quickly deported, as advocacy grew. President Bill Clinton ordered the release on parole of 53 passengers more than three years later.
Two decades later, those survivors who didn't obtain asylum remain in legal limbo, allowed to stay and work while supervised.
Despite their situation, those immigrants aren't speaking out. Repeated requests for interviews through their advocates were unanswered. Even some who were granted asylum refused requests for interviews -- saying directly or through others that they want to move past painful memories.
Three boys in their late teens had been placed as foster children in the Deer Park home of Patricia and Anthony Yacullo.
Patricia Yacullo died in 2010, but Anthony Yacullo said that they had raised them like their own, giving them American names, taking them to school, helping them find their way.
The teens had moved away, though. One opened a restaurant in New Jersey; another lives in Nassau County and owns a wholesale handbag business; the third moved to North Carolina after he was denied asylum, Yacullo said.
"If I could do it over again I would do it over again," said Yacullo, 84. "If I didn't take them in, who knows what would have happened to them."
In York, David and Carole Kline agreed to hire one detainee "to push looms around" at their Family Heirloom Weavers, David Kline said. They were astounded when You Yi Yang arrived at their shop, an old-fashioned textile mill making antique carpets and bedspreads, and "took two threads out of a weaver's back and tied them in a knot, just the way we do it," because he had been a weaver in China.
Now a U.S. citizen, Yang bought a home for his family near the Klines' and remains a master weaver. "I don't think it was a coincidence. I think he was sent to us," said Kline, 82. "We did them wrong by locking them up when they just wanted to live here and have a good life."