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Freedom Dreams : A hundred illegal Chinese immigrants sit in INS jails for the third year. Their appeals for asylum crawl along--while the promised land calls from outside.


BAKERSFIELD — In the predawn hours of June 6, 1993, Dai Bo Mei stood on the deck of the freighter Golden Venture, looking at the lights of New York City a few hundred yards away.

This is the closest she has been to freedom in America.

Dai was part of the Golden Venture's cargo--282 illegal Chinese immigrants. She'd traveled for more than a year and promised smugglers $30,000 for this chance to slip into the United States. That Sunday morning, the rusty ship ground itself into the sandy bottom at a distance of about 3 1/2 football fields offshore. Waves of Golden Venture passengers leaped into the chilly, choppy waters, swimming toward the beaches. Six drowned. Six escaped.

Dai, one of 24 women on the Golden Venture, didn't jump. Officers took her into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Nearly three years later, most of the Golden Venture cases remain unresolved. Of those, 100 refugees, including Dai, sit in INS jails as their appeals for political asylum wend their way through immigration and federal courts, largely without success.

Fighting for their cause is an unusual alliance of immigration and antiabortion activists, drawn together by disbelief that the U.S. government does not grant asylum in cases of forced sterilization or abortion. They also find unjust the INS' determination to keep the 100 behind bars, at a cost of about $55 per day per person. The bill so far tops $10 million.

With most legal avenues at dead ends, the best hope for the Golden Venture refugees is that the law will change. But President Clinton recently vetoed a foreign relations authorization bill that included a section reversing U.S. policy toward people fleeing population control programs.

Another possibility is that Canada or a Central American country will accept some of the refugees.

Today, Dai, 35, eats, sleeps and watches television at the Lerdo INS Detention Facility in Bakersfield, one of several jails the Golden Venture refugees have been scattered to. She doesn't talk easily about her life. She shakes her head and looks down. "I don't want to cry today," she says.


Several years ago, John Burgess was a burned-out lawyer studying to be a psychotherapist.

"Then this Proposition 187 came down the line, and it just pissed me off," Burgess, now 57, says.

He walked into the Immigrant Legal Resources Center in San Francisco and volunteered his services. Two weeks later, the center asked Burgess to help out on the Golden Venture cases. "It was a tiger by the tail," he says.

Burgess represents Dai Bo Mei and most of the 33 other Golden Venture refugees remaining at Lerdo. He's trying to scrape together enough money to rent a car--he doesn't own one--to make his seventh visit to Bakersfield.

In January, lawyers for the refugees suffered two deflating judicial defeats. One court dismissed allegations that the White House had unduly rushed the deportation hearings of Chinese refugees. Another held that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has ultimate authority over whether to keep asylum-seekers in jail, even though Department of Justice regulations state otherwise.

Additional court appeals could take years to run their course, but the lawyers aren't optimistic about their chances. "We have to win it politically," Burgess says. "We've basically lost it legally."

Several of the Lerdo refugees have given up hope. Ling Shang Jing, who underwent a forced vasectomy and spent two months in jail for violating China's family planning laws, has stomach cancer and wants to go home. Cai Qing had come to freely practice her Buddhist beliefs, but now she "is just weary," Burgess says. Cai, Ling and two others were voluntarily deported on Saturday.

Dai was not one of them. "I'm afraid I'd die if I go back to China," she says.

The refugees have heard that those deported--51 so far from the Golden Venture--end up in Chinese jails, where they reportedly must pay up to a $7,000 fine to be released.

Another Bakersfield detainee, 42-year-old Qu Ai Yue, desperately wants out--but not back to China. "Think about it," she says. "I left China five years ago. My goal is to go to a free country. I'm more than 40 years old. How many more five-year chunks of my life do I have left?"

In October, officials told Qu to get packed: She was one of 12 women Ecuador had agreed to accept on humanitarian grounds. The next day, they told her she wasn't going after all--three names had disappeared in a bureaucratic mix-up.

The nine Golden Venture women who did go to Ecuador have capitalized on Central America's emerging entrepreneurship. Three have opened up a Chinese restaurant. A fourth works in that restaurant. Two others will open a second restaurant by the end of the month. The remaining three want to start a boutique.


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