Advocates Address Concerns in Immigration Reform Debate
New York—Thirty passengers from the freighter Golden Venture today called on President Bush to take action that would grant them permanent legal residence in the US. Their appeal comes 13 years after the ill-fated ship ran aground off New York with 286 individuals on board, and nine years after the passengers were released from detention on a parole from President Clinton.
The unprecedented gathering of the former detainees for a press conference comes at a time when the national immigration crisis makes the fate of the Golden Venture immigrants more relevant than ever.
“When the Golden Venture passengers were detained in 1993, the government ignored human rights standards. In todays debate over immigration policy, the same standards are ignored. Unfortunately, what the Golden Venture passengers were subjected to indefinite incarceration in jails far from relatives and their attorneysis no longer unusually punitive. It was a dramatic policy reversal that has tragically become the norm,” said Stanley Mark of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the first group of attorneys permitted to visit and represent them in court.
“Bills in the Senate right now call for mandatory and indefinite detention of immigrants without an opportunity to challenge it. Current Congressional proposals would blindly boost enforcement and codify policies that would reverse Supreme Court rulings, and make it virtually impossible for an immigrant to have a fair day in court.”
Today is first time the immigrants from the Golden Venture have appeared as a group since their highly publicized release from the York, PA jail in Feb. 1997. The press conference was held at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, the same museum that launched an exhibit entitled Fly to Freedom featuring art created by the Golden Venture detainees while they were in jail building public sympathy and political support for the passengers as their time in jail dragged on.
“We almost died trying to get to America, and then we were in jail for four years,” said Golden Venture passenger Michael Chen, a restaurant owner from Columbus OH. “We have been out of jail for almost a decade. We have started businesses and families, paid taxes and been good citizens. But still we are not fully legal. Its hard for us to buy homes, get jobs or even get drivers licenses. We live in fear that we will be sent back to China. We ask President Bush to recognize that we have already paid a very high price to find freedom in America, and to finally grant us legal status.”
Without legal status, the Golden Venture passengers face the risk of being deported to China. More than 100 of the 286 Golden Venture passengers were sent back. On their return, they were jailed, fined, and beaten. In some cases, returned Golden Venture passengers were forcibly sterilized. The international notoriety of the Golden Venture passengers has caused them to be singled out for particularly harsh treatment from the Chinese government.
One Golden Venture passenger released on the Clinton parole has already been deported. Two others would have been deported without the intervention of advocates and Congressional staff members.
To make their appeal, the Golden Venture passengers signed a petition to the President and sent it to Washington. The petition asks the President to use his executive authority to initiate steps that would lead to permanent legal residence for the Golden Venture passengers. The letter asks for relief in large part because of the dangers the former detainees would face if they were deported.
With the U.S. Senate divided on immigration legislation following passage in the House of harsh new anti-immigrant legislation, the Golden Venture passengerslike immigrants throughout the countrywere moved to speak out.
“The situation in Washington is in our minds all the time,” said Arming He, today a restaurant owner from Cape Coral, FL. “Already our lives are becoming more difficult. If you dont have legal status, you cannot even get a drivers license. Serious problems are coming up as policy changes. We are very concerned that it is only going to get worse. Being sent back to China now would destroy our lives.”
Joining the Golden Venture passengers at the press conference were two advocates who have been working on their behalf for 13 years, and currently represent the 30 Golden Venture survivors: Craig Trebilcock and Beverly Church.
Trebilcock, a York, PA immigration attorney, is the lawyer who launched an epic legal battle against the federal government that protected the passengers from deportation while they were in jail. “The Golden Venture passengers have gained so much notoriety over the years that they present a tremendous political embarrassment to China,” Trebilcock said. “They are a constant reminder of the Chinese governments poor human rights practices, and they have very publicly spoken about the brutality of the regime in Beijing. They would face terrible consequences if they were sent back. Trebilcock is also an officer in the U.S. Army reserve, serving tours of duty in Bosnia and Iraq.”
Church, who is now a paralegal in Florida, has worked in Congress for legislation that would grant the detainees full legal status, but the legislation has been stalled now for several years. “This is a group of hardworking men who havent taken a dime from anybody.” Church said. “Their backgrounds have been checked by the FBI, Interpol and other agencies, with absolutely no problems. They own businesses and have started beautiful families. Now theyre scared to death. This has been dragging on for far too long. Its time to get these men their green cards.”
Golden Venture Documentary Film Opens Tonight
The press conference coincides with the world premiere of a documentary about the Golden Venture passengers at the Tribeca Film Festival. Narrated by Tim Robbins and directed by New York filmmaker Peter Cohn, Golden Venture contains several major disclosurespreviously unreportedabout the continuing plight of many of those who endured the hellish voyage.
The movie tells the story of the 13-year journey of the Golden Venture passengers, Cohn said. The journey isnt over, so the film had to end with an unfortunate cliffhanger. Will the 30 former detainees find a new life in America, or will they endure another tragedy deportation to China? Nothing would please me more than to recut the movie. It should have a happy ending, and that ending would be permanent legal residence.
Golden Venture is an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festivals NY Documentary Competition and will be shown on April 26, April 28, May 3, May 4, and May 6. For more details, visit www.goldenventuremovie.com or www.tribecafilmfestival.org.