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Human Traffic | The Nation

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Human Traffic

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"Ironically enough," writes Keefe, "the officials could have gained a much better understanding of the situation if they had simply consulted the newspaper." On April 4, 1993, the South China Morning Post correctly reported that "a ship carrying hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants is on its way to the United States." Keefe writes, "The Hong Kong-based newspaper exhibited no confusion about the names of the ships or the sequence of events, and explained that the immigrants were now bound for the United States 'aboard a Honduran-registered fishing trawler MV Golden Venture.'"

About the Author

Ted Conover
Ted Conover, the author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, is a writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter...

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Unfortunately, the ship's arrival in the United States would not go as smoothly as the arrival of the vessel that had unloaded at New Bedford in 1992. Ah Kay, though a major investor in the trip, had had to go into hiding in the meantime because of strife with another gang. Nobody could be found to offload the passengers; while the smugglers looked, the Golden Venture waited. And the Coast Guard, Keefe reports, noticed: a surveillance plane spotted the ship southeast of Nantucket the morning of June 4, 1993, and reported it as DIW (dead in the water)--in other words, not moving. It "was quite close to shore, and as it approached New York its course took it on a trajectory that ran directly perpendicular to the shipping lanes in the area--a dangerous move, and one that might have attracted some notice," he writes, adding that, as the boat sailed slowly toward Rockaway the next evening, "the Coast Guard dispatched boats to intercept it. But they couldn't find it." (Unfortunately, Keefe is unable to offer further information about why this would be.)

Other disturbing revelations abound. Government officials had Sister Ping and her husband in custody long before the Golden Venture disaster, in connection with smuggling schemes including an incident near Niagara Falls in which four people died. But apparently they figured Sister Ping and her husband for bit players; he never went to prison, and she served only a four-month sentence. Well before the Golden Venture grounded, an INS employee, Joe Occhipinti, had perceived the scope of the smuggling from China and proposed that a multi-agency task force be formed to take it on; the suggestion was never acted upon. Ah Kay, the Fuk Ching gang leader responsible for several murders and untold other violence, became a government witness against Sister Ping and others and in exchange was quietly released from prison. (He is now under witness protection.) And even though there was an active warrant out for his arrest, Sister Ping's husband was naturalized in 1996.

Americans are sadly accustomed to bureaucratic incompetence regarding most matters involving immigration. Ultimately more worrying, however, is our national ambivalence about new citizens; it's hard to find a better example of this than President George H.W. Bush's actions with regard to immigration and China. Following the Tiananmen Square uprising, Bush was clearly tortured. He wanted to show American disapproval while preserving a working relationship with the Chinese. He halted sales of military equipment to the People's Liberation Army, for example, but rejected the idea of broad economic sanctions. He also wanted to protect dissidents, such as the Beijing astrophysicist who sought refuge at the US Embassy during the crackdown, and it was in connection with this that he issued the fateful executive decree. First, said Bush, any Chinese citizen who was in the United States before the crackdown should not be forcibly removed by immigration agents. Keefe, noting that the directive effectively offered safe haven to 80,000 Chinese students, calls it "a kind of founding document for the Fujianese community in America."

A second part of the order, writes Keefe, "would unwittingly facilitate the snakehead trade and set the stage for an epic influx of undocumented Chinese." This was Section 4, where Bush directed officials to provide for "enhanced consideration" under immigration laws for people "who express a fear of persecution upon return to their country related to that country's policy of forced abortion or coerced sterilization." In Keefe's words, "the breadth of the provision led to the de facto result that any fertile Chinese person, whether a parent or not, suddenly became a potential political refugee in the United States." It was an "unambiguous invitation," and the effects were unmistakable: "in 1992 political asylum was granted to roughly 85 percent of the undocumented Chinese immigrants who requested it, a rate almost three times higher than for immigrants from other countries. 'The Fujianese thank two people,' a Chinatown real estate broker who emigrated in the 1980s observed. 'One is Cheng Chui Ping [Sister Ping]. And one is George Bush the father.'"

Keefe consulted an impressive array of sources in piecing together this book. Many were in law enforcement--agents of the FBI and the immigration service seem to have been especially forthcoming. Where others were not, Keefe dug deeper. His source notes reveal that many details of the scene from that horrific night on Rockaway Beach come from Keefe's Freedom of Information Act requests for the reports of first responders, such as agents of the US Park Service Police. Outside law enforcement, Keefe spoke to attorneys, White House staffers and all kinds of people in New York's Chinatown. In York, Pennsylvania, where many of the migrants spent more than three years in prison, he spoke with volunteer lawyers and a committee of advocates for the men in prison. And he interviewed many of the migrants, including one, Sean Chen, who left Fujian with snakeheads in 1991; traveled overland through Burma to Thailand; languished in Bangkok until July 1992, when he boarded the Najd II; languished in Mombasa until April 1993, when he boarded the Golden Venture; and then languished in York until President Bill Clinton ordered him and all other Golden Venture detainees freed on Valentine's Day 1997.

Sister Ping's life, however, was moving in the opposite direction. In 2006 she was convicted of smuggling-related crimes and sentenced by then-judge Michael Mukasey to thirty-five years in prison. (When Keefe wrote her there asking for an interview, she replied, "What's in it for me?")

Keefe's book ends with his visit to the man who was head of the regional immigration service office in New York at the time of the Golden Venture landing, the man who decided that, instead of releasing the migrants pending disposition of their cases in immigration court, as was the common practice, he would detain them indefinitely. I remember thinking at the time how heartless William Slattery was and, with his inflammatory pronouncements, how nasty. But with a fairness that's characteristic of his approach, Keefe explains some of Slattery's thinking. There was a snakehead boom under way; Chinese asylum seekers were arriving by the boatload. At the top of his agency there was a vacuum: Bill Clinton had been in office only six months, and his nominee for INS commissioner, Doris Meissner, had not yet been confirmed. Slattery tells Keefe that no higher-up told him to detain the migrants, but nor did they say not to. Washington, in Slattery's mind, was "terrified, paralyzed by its own indecision." The brazen landing inside New York City "was a final, unmistakable fuck you from the smugglers to the United States government, and Slattery took it personally." "I led. Washington followed," he brags to Keefe.

Slattery's anger probably reflected that of many; snakeheads like Sister Ping were clearly out to exploit the good will of the United States. Now retired in Florida, Slattery "to this day...is skeptical about the asylum claims of the passengers aboard the Golden Venture," writes Keefe, and once you have in hand this larger picture, it's hard not to share that skepticism. Or to agree with Slattery's current, pragmatic position that, having been here so long, the Golden Venture passengers should of course be allowed to stay.

The immigration official is not the only player in this tale that has found its final resting place in Florida. After being auctioned off by the US Marshals in 1993 (and repainted, and renamed the United Caribbean), the former Golden Venture carried cargo for a while before the new owner abandoned it in the Miami River. Keefe reports that eventually local authorities decided to sink the ship and turn it into an artificial reef for divers. That's its final act, out in the Boca Raton Inlet. I think no one was sad to see it go.

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