A CLASS action lawsuit has been filed in the United States in the wake of the Golden Venture incident, seeking to save possibly thousands of detained Chinese immigrants from deportation to the mainland.
The suit, filed last night by lawyers representing some of the Fujianese passengers from the ill-fated smuggling ship, is the most direct challenge yet to the White House's hardline stance on denying asylum to Chinese over the controversial issue of Beijing's one-child family policy.
The class action not only ensures that legal hearings on the future of the 285 survivors from the ship could drag on for months. If it succeeds, it could lead to asylum being granted to a majority of about 12,000 Chinese nationals who cases are backlogged before US immigration courts.
And in a parallel case involving about 12 of the Golden Venture passengers, lawyers have filed for writs of habeas corpus, alleging that senior officials in the Clinton administration put undue pressure on immigration judges to turn their asylum claims down so they could be quickly repatriated.
More than three months ago, senior US officials said the Golden Venture aliens had mostly been screened out on a fast-track basis, and were on the point of going home. Although only 11 have been granted asylum, the US Government is facing a long legal battle to send the others back.
During a summer where scores of illegal smuggling boats either landed in the US or were intercepted by the coast guard, the Golden Venture achieved notoriety when it ran aground off the coast of New York, and 10 were killed trying to swim ashore.
Kwok Ling-kay, alleged ringleader of the Fuk Ching gang which is accused of masterminding the ship's passage, is in Hong Kong fighting extradition to the US, while 14 alleged gang members are awaiting trial in New York.
In a test case in May 1989, a Chinese immigrant, 33, was deported despite claiming fear of persecution. He claimed he was about to be forced to undergo sterilisation after his wife had a second child, and so had fled.
A lawyer filing the class action, Craig Trebilcock, said: ''By all appearances, the Clinton administration is determined to make an example of the Golden Venture. We want to know whether political games are being played with the lives of these men.'' The action is asking the Federal court to declare that the immigration courts misread the law in the original cases, and either grant asylum or arrange new hearings.
The publicity from the case will embarrass the US administration, which is pursuing the tough immigration policy while putting pressure on the Chinese government to improve its human rights record.