ENSENADA — Hundreds of U.S.-bound Chinese immigrants who survived a perilous, three-month sea voyage to a land of opportunity were being escorted into this Mexican port city late Friday for return to their homeland. Only one man was accepted as a political asylum applicant and whisked off a ship by helicopter to the United States, officials said.
Authorities in Washington, meanwhile, confirmed a report that several other vessels with hundreds more Chinese refugees aboard were believed headed toward Hawaii, destined to enter U.S. waters this weekend.
Immigrants from two of the three dilapidated ships detained offshore for 10 days were brought to Ensenada Friday after 100 days at sea. All told, the three ships had 657 on board. The third ship had not entered Mexican waters late Friday because of "technical difficulties," authorities said.
Mexican Navy personnel were escorting the refugees to shore in an elaborate operation that involved a waiting convoy of 28 buses, 50 federal highway police cars, hundreds of law enforcement officers and two jetliners standing by in Tijuana to fly the ships' passengers back to China.
In the end, the immigrants would come within a few hundred yards of their dream. The runways at Tijuana's Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport are within sight of the stark fence separating Mexico from the United States.
Mexican government officials said the massive deployment of officers was designed to prevent such mishaps and tragedies as occurred in other recent cases involving Chinese immigrants. In Mexicali, dozens of detained refugees scattered on foot and sprinted off into the United States; in New York, six Chinese drowned while trying to reach land; in San Francisco, migrants kicked out bus windows in a desperate attempt to escape detention; in Honduras, an officer shot and killed a fleeing Chinese man.
"The only thing that is important in (the operation) is to guarantee their security and physical integrity," said Jorge Medina Viedas, a spokesman for the Mexican Interior Ministry. "I hope that there will be no need for the use of force."
Describing the kind of strain that months of sea travel can produce, a senior U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official said: "They are restless. They have been on the boat for days. They have mortgaged their future. They are desperate."
It was after tense and delicate negotiations with the Clinton Administration that the Mexican government decided this week to accept and repatriate the Chinese as a "humanitarian gesture" motivated by deteriorating conditions aboard the crowded, filthy vessels.
The diplomatic breakthrough ended a weeklong stalemate with the U.S. government, which had asked Mexico's assistance in keeping the immigrants from reaching U.S. soil, where they could have remained for years while applying for political asylum. Most of the immigrants are thought to be fleeing poor economic conditions rather than political persecution.
The lone successful asylum seeker was taken by helicopter from a U.S. Coast Guard ship to United States territory about noon Friday, sources said.
Some of the immigrants were reported to be weak and ill, probably because of the unsanitary conditions aboard the alien smugglers' vessels. A team of eight doctors was to examine the boat people during the trip to shore aboard Mexican Navy ships.
Meanwhile, a Coast Guard official in Washington confirmed that an unspecified number of vessels presumed to be carrying Chinese immigrants have been spotted off Hawaii.
"They could enter U.S. waters around Hawaii some time this weekend," Commander Mark Wolfson said.