A policy adrift

US President George W. Bush's unveiling of a plan to contain illegal immigration raises a simmering issue back up to boiling point in electoral manifestos across the nation. Once again the immigration woes bedevilling the US are back in the spotlight.

These are polarising times in the country, yet post-September 11 America is still finding that questions of humanitarian responsibility get easily confused with the preservation of national security, as shown by the latest figures from the UN refugee agency.

While it reports that the world's refugee population has fallen to its lowest for 25 years, at 9.2 million, it also warns that too many governments are showing too little compassion towards refugees and asylum seekers.

The US is regarded as one of the prime offenders, and it brings to mind an event that helped ignite the immigration debate in the first place - the Golden Venture, a rusty old freighter that ran aground off the Queens shoreline 13 years ago, spilling its cargo of 286 Fujianese into the arms of an overwhelmed police department and into the glare of the world's media. To this day it remains a key event that awaits resolution.

When the overloaded boat hit a sandbank 300 metres off Rockaway Beach in June 1993, the US was confronted with a clear-cut question of where its moral responsibility ended and national security began.

Those on board had risked life and limb in squalid, cramped conditions, with 10 not surviving. Many were so emaciated from the year-long voyage - where the only food was two or three bowls daily of tainted rice and filthy drinking water - that emergency teams recalled cracking ribcages as they attempted to resuscitate survivors.

The Clinton administration, struggling with the aftermath of the first World Trade Centre attack, duly arrested all but six of the survivors - who fled and were never seen again - and sent them to prison indefinitely.

'When the Golden Venture passengers were detained in 1993, the government ignored human rights standards,' said Stanley Mark, of the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund, the first group of attorneys permitted to visit and represent the Golden Venture passengers in court.

'Unfortunately, what the Golden Venture passengers were subjected to - indefinite incarceration in jails far from relatives and their attorneys - is no longer extraordinarily punitive. It was a dramatic policy reversal at the time that has tragically become the norm.'

Keen to crack down on the 'snakehead' smugglers bringing illegal immigrants into the country, the Clinton administration made an example of the Golden Venture passengers. While the last of the smugglers responsible for the fiasco - 'Big Sister' Cheng Chui-ping - was sentenced to 35 years behind bars earlier this year, the 220 or so Golden Venture passengers who stayed in the US find themselves in limbo, nine years after they were released on parole.

Having been refused visas, they can neither call themselves citizens, leave the country, or in some cases even leave the states in which they live. Meanwhile, their well-publicised actions of 13 years ago have embarrassed mainland authorities to the extent that the immigrants' fear of reprisal prevents them from returning to the wives and children they left behind.

Of the 110 who were deported by the US, at least half have returned illegally. Take the story of Yan Li (not his real name), a father of three who sought asylum from the mainland's one-child policy. Two years after his arrest, he was deported back and forcibly sterilised as punishment by the authorities. One year later, he paid another US$50,000 to smugglers for a second illegal passage to the US, and now he works as a chef in an Arkansas Chinese restaurant.

Or there's Lin Yan-ming, who swam for his life to reach the shore that night. After years in limbo, four of which he served in prison, he was issued with a deportation order. 'I've been in the USA for almost 13 years. I've found a wife here, I have children now,' he said at a recent reunification of refugees to commemorate the premiere of a documentary charting their struggle at New York's Tribeca Film Festival.

'I work in a restaurant. It's been a very hard life living here as an undocumented immigrant. And suddenly I have to leave it all behind.' For his troubles, his achievements were cruelly distilled into one single demand: take no more than 19kg of luggage with you when you leave.

'I'm very proud to be in the USA,' said Michael Chen, who also survived the ordeal, only to be jailed for four years. He now owns a restaurant in Oklahoma. 'I'm married, I have lovely kids. But I have to live with the fear of what might happen to them if I get sent back. It's something I have to think about every day. We all do, despite the fact that we've contributed to society, started businesses and families, paid taxes and have been good citizens.'

According to Craig Trebilcock, an immigration attorney who launched a legal battle against the federal government which protected the Golden Venture survivors from deportation while in jail, the US has come to a point in its history where 'immigrant' is a provocative word. We are a nation of immigrants, and [the Golden Venture passengers'] misfortune was in arriving at a certain time in our nation's history when the anti-immigrant wave was high,' he said.

'One thing I've learned as an attorney in this area is that there isn't as much an immigration law in this country as there is immigration politics. These guys risked their lives in some lousy cramped ship out of their determination to come to the US and what they found were bars.'

Mr Trebilcock is also an officer in the US Army Reserve, having served in Bosnia and Iraq. 'I understand the need for border security more than anyone, we cannot have unrestricted borders. But that's not what these gentlemen are about. They came here under the guidelines of US law that allows for application for political asylum, but they ran into a political firestorm.'

The past 13 years have indeed unfolded under tragic circumstances. The men and women who first sailed from Thailand to Kenya on the Saudi Arabian ship Najd II, before waiting six months in Africa to board Golden Venture, claimed they were arriving not as economic immigrants but as asylum seekers. Their faith in the American dream was such that they each left families behind and paid more than US$30,000 each to risk their lives in a rusting, decrepit vessel.

Upon arrival they were due to be met by Chinatown's feared Fuk Ching gang, who were unable to help unload the passengers due to an earlier gang fight which had left key members in disarray. After the arrests of the passengers, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement) found itself facing a backlash months after the World Trade Centre bombing, while a nationwide recession hardly constituted a welcome mat for undocumented immigrants.

'I believe that this case is a test for this current administration,' said Mr Trebilcock. 'You talk about why we're in Iraq and you hear about the dignity of man and that freedom and democracy are on the march. This is a group of men who have come to this country fleeing communist tyranny simply to make a better future for their families and to be able to live free.'

In New York, 31 of the former detainees signed a petition calling on Mr Bush to grant them legal status. 'This is a group of hard-working men who haven't taken a dime from anybody,' said Beverly Church, a Florida-based paralegal who, along with Mr Trebilcock, has spent the past nine years assisting the Golden Venture survivors. 'It just goes to show that we cannot have a one-size-fits-all immigration policy.'