“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” 1
On 6 June 1993, off the New York City borough of Queens, 286 refugees from the People’s Republic of China leapt from the ship called the Golden Venture into the chilly waters of New York harbor. After a year on the high seas they must have thought their arduous journey to escape the Chinese governments ever-tightening one child policy was over. They were wrong. Today, over half of these refugees — 147 to be exact — languish in jails throughout the United States. Deportation proceedings are underway. If returned to China, Chinese authorities will detain, fine and, in some cases, forcibly sterilize them. To call attention to their plight, nine Chinese women imprisoned at Bakersfield, California, launched a hunger strike in November, pledging to continue until they either die or are released. One has already been hospitalized while the others, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities, have been “isolated” so that they can be “closely monitored.” Why would these refugees prefer death in the United States to repatriation to China? Why have these members of the “huddled masses” who yearn only to “breathe free” been treated as dangerous criminals?
Caught Between Two Policies
Prior to Bill Clinton’s inauguration the men and women of the Golden Venture would not have been imprisoned. It was the policy of both the Reagan and Bush administrations to allow those fleeing coercive abortion or sterilization policy to apply for asylum — which was granted if their testimony was found credible. But Clinton and his appointees proved to have very different attitudes toward such asylum seekers. One early indication of this new attitude came in Clinton’s decision, upon assuming the Presidency, to reverse every executive order of his two predecessors restricting the role of abortion in U.S. public policy.2 Among those overturned was the Mexico City Policy, which denied U.S. funds to organizations involved in promoting or performing abortion as a means of birth control. Indeed, so complete was the policy reversal in this area that by April 1993 then-Presidential Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers could say in complete candor that the Clinton administration thought of abortion as “part of the overall approach to population control.”3 Agencies now eligible for funding from the United States government included the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which, as the “main vehicle of support”4 for China’s invasive one child policy was thus in a sense responsible for the plight of the men and women on the Golden Venture . The Bush administration’s policy of offering asylum to refugees from such coercion was allowed to stand — it was still in effect when the Chinese arrived — but was regarded as something of a dead letter by an administration which meant to control Third World population growth by all means at its disposal. So it was that at about the time the men and women on the Golden Venture were making their way across the high seas, the Clinton administration was rolling up the welcome mat. Instead of encountering high U.S, officials sympathetic to their plight, the refugees found themselves in the hands of a bureaucracy bent on funding and supporting the very policy most of them had fled, and which wanted nothing more than to sweep them out of sight or, if possible, back to China.
In the U.S. Congress the refugees found a more sympathetic reception. Many Congressmen were appalled at the treatment the refugees had received, both in China and in the United States. Congressman Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the House Committee on International Relations, held a series of hearings on their plight. These revealed with brutal clarity the sufferings of the Chinese people, in particular little girls, under the one-child policy. For example, Chen Yun Fei, one of the refugee women from the Golden Venture, testified that:
…on my way home I saw a baby girl which was only born like seven or eight days lying on the road crying very hard and it is very weak, this little girl. And a lot of people were watching so I asked, so I asked people around to help this child who can take this child home, otherwise this child is going to die because she has nothing to eat. But those people around said, you are talking nonsense. You know this is the time that the campaign is at its height; who dare to have this child home? So if you want to rescue this child, you are the person who will bring this child home. So I was very angry because I thought, you know you people did not want to help this child is going to die. So I said,if nobody wants to help this child, I am going to help this child. If you are afraid of the government, I am not afraid of the government. So finally I took the child home.
“So after I returned home, later the government, the cadres of the local government, found out. And then they came to my home saying that, you know what you did and you already have two boys and you picked up another girl and so you have to have the sterilization. 5
In the end, after fleeing their village to live in a remote area for a time, Chen and her husband joined other refugees fleeing China aboard the Golden Venture .
On The Deportation Railroad
Eight days after the refugees arrived, Gerald S. Hurwitz, Counsel to the Director of the Executive Office for immigration Review, wrote a memo to Phyllis Coven, Assistant to the Attorney General, asking that the Golden Venture detainees’ cases be treated as “emergency matters.” Hurwitz was concerned that exposing China’s “coerced family planning measures” to public scrutiny might threaten administration population policies. Moreover, if the administration were perceived to be handling the Golden Venture refugees any differently than similar refugees had been handled previously, this would open the possibility of lawsuits. “It would be helpful for the adjudication of these cases and other similar cases if the AG quickly decides these issues,” Hurwitz wrote.6 In fact, Attorney General Janet Reno did not personally involve herself in the asylum process, but the Hurwitz memo serves nonetheless to highlight the administration’s concerns, particularly in light of what the refugees began to experience:
The refugees hearings were held within prison waits and the public and press were excluded. The hearings took place in an atmosphere tainted by hostile public statements by Justice Department, State Department and INS officials. The volunteer lawyers found that continuances they requested were frequently denied, that in some cases the lawyers were abused by Immigration Judges, that the government’s responses to asylum applications were frequently delivered at the moment the hearing commenced, allowing no time for review and response. that immigration Judges in rendering their decisions cited documents and other evidence not cited documents and other evidence not presented at the hearings, that translation service was abysmal and government interpreters jailed or refused to speak in the Mandarin Chinese dialect in which many in the aliens spoke most fluently and that credibility and factual determinations were made with no apparent consideration of the testimony presented at the hearings. The pro-bono lawyers later learned that high administration officials had intervened directly to influence the manner in which the hearings for the Golden Venture detainees were conducted and that the procedures followed in the Golden Venture hearings were a clear departure from prior practices.
“Slowly a pattern began to emerge — regardless of who represented the refugee and regardless of which judge heard the case — regardless of whether the alien was a pro-democracy activist or a victim of the Chinese family planning policy and regardless of the merits of the individual cases, asylum was repeatedly denied. Many of those participating voluntarily in the project came to the conclusion that the involvement of the pro-bono lawyers had been invited by the INS to provide the trappings of due process to proceedings of which the ultimate results had been predetermined. 7
Since the initial hearings, pro-bono lawyers have filed many appeals and have banded together to demand completely new hearings, to accord with the types of hearings offered other asylum seekers. Yet,with the weight of the initial determination behind them, INS officials have vigorously pursued deportation procedures against as many of the refugees as they can.
Life In The Deportation Boxcar
As earnestly as the Clinton administration might wish the Golden Venture Chinese away, they seem to even more earnestly desire them to be kept out of the public eye while they remain in the hands of the INS. In the beginning they were not allowed to speak to the media at all, and even now they are only allowed visitors under the tightest of restrictions. In many significant ways, the men and women of the Golden Venture are being treated as criminals when, in fact, they may still be eligible for asylum under the Reagan/Bush policy. “It’s horrendous the way they are treating these [the refugee] women,” said Kathy Lompard, a lawyer and professor at Tulane University who represented some of the refugees when they were held in a New Orleans area prison, “They were brought to me in shackles, but these women are not criminals. They have relatives in New York. Why are they being shipped here like cattle?” she asked.8 In addition to being forced to wear leg-irons to interviews, refugees in the New Orleans facility were also denied medical care, ministers’ visits and even the food to which they were accustomed, this despite a local Chinese restaurant’s offer to send meals.”9 The situation in other facilities, like the Lerdo Detention Facility in Bakersfield, California, is not much better. In early August 1995 three representatives from People of the Golden Vision, a volunteer group committed to assisting the refugees, traveled to Bakersfield and filed a report on the condition of the refugees there:
“With the exception of the secretary, the staff is hidden behind one-way windows, so visitors can only respond to disembodied voices giving directions or asking questions. Although the federal prisoners in the facility are permitted more than one visitor at a time, the Golden Venture detainees had to be seen by only one visitor at a time .… We are very concerned about the food and meal schedule. The detainees are fed breakfast prior to 4:00 a.m., lunch at 9:30 a.m. and dinner at 4:30 p.m. ..,, All the detainees reported that they are always hungry and must buy any supplementary food as well as purchase drinking water. (The water in the facility is not drinkable). 10
“The women were very distressed about the punishment received for showing any emotion. We were told that they receive 4 to 5 days in solitary confinement for crying or laughing or showing any emotion. They live together in one large roam and have no privacy .… 11
“Of particular concern was the report of the degrading way in which the women are treated when they have their menstrual periods, they must ask for a sanitary pad each time they need one. Sometimes they are given one and sometimes they are not given one.” 12
Give Me Liberty Or Give me Death
Since the early August visit things have gotten much better for some of these refugees and much worse for the others. On 6 October 1995, 12 of the refugees incarcerated at the Lerdo facility were accepted as political refugees by Ecuador and were escorted to Quito by two INS officials and a Roman Catholic nun. The others have not been so fortunate. Fearing continued INS efforts to deport them, nine Chinese women on 9 November began a hunger strike to protest what they understand to be their “imminent deportation” and forced repatriation to mainland China. By 1 December, supporters outside the prison reported that the women had lost an average of 10 pounds each, with one woman’s weight dropping from 104 pounds to 87 pounds.
The strike ended on 29 December. Congressman Smith and other concerned U.S. Representatives have been privately assured by INS officials that the women are not in immediate danger of repatriation. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a legislative amendment which explicitly offered asylum to those who can credibly claim flight from forced abortion and sterilization, but the Senate refused to go along. Concerned House members then appealed to the President to release the hunger—strikers on Christmas, but Clinton also declined to grant the refugees humanitarian parole.
More On The Way?
Ironically, at a time when Americans express increasing concern about illegal immigration into the United States, the Clinton administration has embarked on a policy which seems guaranteed to impel more mainland Chinese to the U.S. Before becoming refugees outside China, it turns out, many of the Golden Venture Chinese, as well as other Chinese in similar straits, were on the run inside China from coercive abortion and sterilization policies. Many Chinese, upon discovering they are pregnant with an “illegal” child, or upon being slated for sterilization, choose to flee their villages even though, should they be captured, they will he forcibly aborted and sterilized anyway and receive a fine and prison sentence besides.13
The Chinese government calls these internal refugees “excess birth guerillas.” Their numbers are simply staggering, as an internal Justice Department memo reports: “The floating population currently numbers between 50 and 80 million, constituting approximately 4 to 7 percent of China’s population. A certain percentage of this floating population is comprised of pregnant women who leave their homes and villages under false pretenses to escape the detection of an unauthorized pregnancy or for surreptitious removal of IUDs .…”14
This confirms reports from the refugees themselves, almost all of whom indicated they fled their homes well in advance of leaving the PRC, a step they took only after reprisals against family members or persistent threats made it clear remaining was simply impossible. It seems clear that unless American funds are withdrawn from the UNFPA and other organizations which participate in the support or management of China’s population control program, the number of Chinese fleeing the condemnation of their natural fertility will only increase.
The Outcome of the Golden Venture
No matter how the Clinton administration changes, or does not change, its policy on funding coerced abortion and sterilization, simple justice demands the men and women of the Golden Venture be released. They are only criminals in Beijing’s eyes, yet the administration persists in holding them. This suggests a refusal to own up to the destruction its support underwrites in China.
How ironic that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton could court accolades by condemning forced abortion at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, given that her husband’s administration was seeking to close the “Golden Door” against refugees fleeing that very policy. Justice demands U.S. officials be accountable for the policies which have led them here – and equally accountable for their deplorable treatment after they arrived.
1 The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus.
2 “Beijing’s Revenge: How Population Control Creates Illegal Immigration.” Culture Wars, September, 1995.
5 Transcript of hearing before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the House Committee on International Relations: 17 May; 22 and 28 June; 19 July 1995, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1995.
7 “A Golden Venture.” Bar Center Brief, October 1994.
8 “Golden Venture women risked all for freedom but languish in U.S. jails.” New York Daily News, 13 December, 1993.
10 “Inhumane and Humiliating Detention Conditions,” People of the Golden Vision report, 18 August, 1995.
13 “Beijing’s Revenge op cit., and “Chinese Refugees Fleeing Forced Abortion” Population Research Institute Review, January/February 1993.
14 “China: Family Planning Policy and Practice in the People’s Republic of China,” Department of Justice, July1994, cited in “Beijing’s Revenge.”