The rescue in June 1993 of nearly 300 illegal immigrants from a ship called the Golden Venture which had run aground off Queens, New York, was the culmination of a harrowing voyage that had begun 120 days earlier. The immigrants were from China’s Fujian province, lured, like so many others, by the promise of freedom in America. Considering their ordeal and the repressive regime from which they had fled, they might have expected to be welcomed with open arms. But as international crime reporter Patrick Radden Keefe shows in his incredibly well-researched The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, they instead became unwitting victims of the ambiguities of U.S. immigration policy. Some would be held in prison for nearly four years while applying for political asylum.

    The ill-fated voyage of the Golden Venture was arranged by Cheng Chui Ping, a grandmother and Fujianese immigrant to New York known around Chinatown as Sister Ping, who had thrived as a “snakehead,” shuffling mostly young Fujianese men from country to country with fake passports and visas, eventually landing them at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. She was, says Keefe, “something like a village elder in the claustrophobically intimate corner of Chinatown where she resided.” One admirer told a local newspaper she was “even better than Robin Hood.”

    Smuggling-by-air was expensive so, hoping to increase her profit margins, Ping partnered with a Chinatown gang member in purchasing the Golden Venture to make regular trips to the United States. The old vessel survived the crash off Queens, but just barely — the crew was so clueless that it nearly docked the boat off South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials took the passengers into custody.

    The grounding of the Golden Venture happened on the watch of President Bill Clinton, who, according to Keefe, was still smarting from the June 1980 riot of thousands of Cuban refugees from the Mariel Boatlift who had been housed in the Fort Chaffee Reserve Center in Arkansas. Amid outrage over his decision to accept the refugees, he lost his bid for re-election as Arkansas governor later that year. Clinton, suggests Keefe, wasn’t going to give his critics any more ammunition by appearing “soft” on the Golden Venture passengers.

    Bill Slattery, director of the INS’ New York office, led the charge to classify the passengers as criminals, not victims. Shipped out of state to Pennsylvania and Louisiana for their asylum hearings, they were out of reach of the pro bono representation they could have gotten in New York, where many more immigration cases were handled. At the time, notes Keefe, “asylum caseloads were exploding, and immigration judges were often underresourced and overworked. As a result, this most solomonic determination — who should be saved and who should be sent back — became an arbitrary and erratic activity.”

    The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 made the United States more sympathetic toward Chinese immigrants, but that attitude didn’t last — the State Department, working with Slattery, felt secure in disregarding most of the Golden Venture passengers’ stories of persecution. One passenger told Keefe he left his home in Fujian at age 17 after police told his family he was being targeted for arrest. Of the boat’s total payload, only about 10 percent were granted asylum.

    These days, ambitious sons and daughters of China are just as likely to move to a different province to learn English and management skills, as chronicled in Leslie T. Chang’s excellent Factory Girls, as they are to stow away on a ship to an uncertain and low-paying job on foreign shores. But human smuggling on a global scale is far from over, and those who formerly came to the United States from China will be replaced by those from Iraq or Morocco or Ecuador. As Keefe points out, “spoiler countries” have not ratified the United Nations’ anti-smuggling protocol, effectively making them portals for “snakeheads” and their passengers. Those traveling on the Golden Venture passed through at least two of these countries — a low count compared to some of Sister Ping’s other voyages.

    Was the Golden Venture an aberration? The current debate over health care reform certainly suggests future refugees could suffer a similar fate (anti-immigration activists have portrayed immigrants as a costly drain on any publicly-funded health care system). “We don’t need illegals,” one protester yelled at a town hall meeting last month in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Send ’em all back. Send ’em back with a bullet in the head the second time.”

    As for Sister Ping, she was arrested in Hong Kong in 2000 after six years on the lam from U.S. officials, using false passports and contact with her husband to continue plying her “snakehead” trade. She is now serving a 35-year sentence in federal prison — mandatory retirement in the land of the free.

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