At 2 a.m. June 6, 1993 a small cargo ship ran into a sandbar not far from a beach at the mouth of New York harbor.
Then the passengers started to jump off. They plunged into the rolling waves, some clinging to plastic bags containing all their possessions. One after another they jumped. Soon two park police patrolling the beach caught sight of grounded vessel. It didn’t take long for a massive response of cops, firemen, Coast Guard and media to descend.
The ship was called the Golden Venture. Inside were 286 Chinese undocumented immigrants, including 24 women and 14 children. Malnourished. Abused. Desperate. Most were from Fujian province and had traveled overland to Thailand, where they boarded the ship, to be confined in the small, dark, rancid cargo hold of the vessel for four months. The cost of this trip was $40,000 each, paid to the group of Chinese gangs that organized the operation.
TV crews lit up the surf as gaunt men in jockey shorts staggered out of the waves clutching their bags, helped by firemen and cops there for a rescue operation. One man lay on the ground, vomiting sea water as EMTs pushed on his chest. Ten passengers died.
Soon a determined rescue effort that showed New York at its best turned into a law enforcement crackdown that showed America’s darker side: These passengers are illegal aliens. Part of a wave arriving from China. And if we don’t do something forceful, there’s a billion more who are going to come next.
The Bill Clinton administration decided to make an example of the Golden Venture passengers. Clinton wasn’t doing well politically and midterm elections loomed. On the Republican right, there was a new surge of anti-immigrant political agitation. So Clinton ordered that the Golden Venture passengers to be rounded up by the INS (forebear to Homeland Security) and put in jail pending asylum hearings. It was the first time that undocumented immigrants, including many with extremely credible grounds for asylum, were immediately detained rather than being released until their cases could be heard.
Some politicians raced to join in a photo op for immigrant bashing. Then NY Congressman Chuck Schumer piled onto it, with no expression of sympathy for the passengers. “The law was always intended that every person claiming asylum would be detained,” Schumer asserted in a joint press conference with NY INS officials.
Our immigration policy was broken in 1993, and it’s still broken today. In recent years, the government has sent back potential asylum seekers because of covid-related restrictions. With that provision gone, asylum seekers are overwhelming our inadequate border processing capabilities and are walking right into the nightmare of US immigration policy, with Gov. DeSantis and Abbott ordering migrants onto busses and planes, political pawns in the game of Blue v. Red.
The Golden Venture passengers also received free bus rides courtesy of the US government. Many were taken to a county jail in York, PA. Many were there for four years. Half were deported.
I was drawn to the Golden Venture story from the day I picked up the morning paper in 1993 and read the staggering account of their Conradian voyage around the world. In 2004, I set out to make a documentary about the Golden Venture, and I set out to find some of the passengers who had survived the voyage, imprisonment and the struggle of finding a new life in a strange land.
The former passengers I got to know each told a different story, and had found their own paths. They ended up in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. They had in common the heroic determination of survivors. They endured and rose up. Many now have children, and perhaps even grandchildren. Their quiet successes are a great vindication to the Americans, mostly from York PA, who worked for years and sacrificed a lot in their battle to defend the Golden Venture passengers against legal and political forces seeking to have them sent back.
On the Queens NY beach on that 1993 morning, as the passengers shivered in the breeze, almost within sight of the Statue of Liberty, the rescuers handed out space blankets for warmth. The image of the huddled men in blankets on the beach became the iconic symbol of Golden Venture.
As the sun came up, even politicians arrived on the sand. Not all were there to bash immigrants. One was New York’s soft spoken Mayor, David Dinkins, who said: “These are people desperately trying to come to America. And I would hope those people that are already here would recognize how important the freedom that they have here is.”