NEW YORK -- Lin Ping's long journey to America seemed to be over at dawn one Sunday in June, when he set foot on a beach in Queens County, a borough of New York City, after a frantic, freezing swim ashore from the Golden Venture, the aging freighter that ran aground off the Rockaway Peninsula after a trip halfway around the world.
Even after being taken into custody, Mr. Lin says, he was thrilled to learn that his case would be heard in a court of law. He knew that thousands of Chinese before him had won the right to stay in the United States by saying they had been persecuted for violating China's strict one-child policy, and by saying that they faced fines or sentences in labor camps if they returned.
But on Aug. 19, in a makeshift immigration court in York County Prison in Pennsylvania, his plea for political asylum was rejected. Like most of the 256 Golden Venture passengers still in detention, Mr. Lin was told that he had not adequately demonstrated that he had been singled out for persecution for a political or religious belief.
As soon as the paperwork allows, officials say, the detainees will be returned to China, perhaps starting as soon as November, as the government tries to send a message to would-be immigrants and smugglers.
"It seems we were unlucky," said Mr. Lin, 27, speaking by telephone from the Pennsylvania prison, his Chinese heavy with the accent of his native Fujian Province. "Other people with circumstances like mine have won before, I know that. I don't understand why I lost."
Because of a Bush administration initiative drafted in response to China's strict family planning policies, asylum has been granted to Chinese generously in recent years, at least when compared with other nationalities. But Mr. Lin and the others aboard their ill-named ship landed in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Part of their misfortune was arriving on the doorstep of the nation's media capital with spectacular drama -- hundreds of immigrants jumping off a freighter for a desperate swim ashore, 10 of them perishing in the surf, the rest huddling in blankets on the beach. The intense news coverage, officials concede, cried out for some governmental response.
President Clinton ordered a crackdown on immigrant smuggling, and in July, more than 650 Chinese were sent home after being found in three ships off the coast of Mexico. Last week, several members of the Fuk Ching gang were arrested in Hong Kong and New York in connection with the smuggling of human cargo and other crimes.
Although officials say the United States was already in the process of becoming tougher on Chinese immigrants, the government has clearly decided to make an example of the Golden Venture passengers.
"We've made no secret of the fact that we asked that these cases be expedited," said Phyllis Coven, special assistant to Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell. "We want the authentic refugees to be found and the others to be deported to China, as a bit of a signal, especially to the criminals organizing the smuggling."
Not only have the cases been decided faster, but tougher standards for asylum have meant that the majority of Golden Venture passengers are likely to be deported. So far, 171 Golden Venture passengers have been denied asylum, and only 14 -- or 7.5 percent of the decided cases -- have won it. An additional 68 are still waiting to be told.
In contrast, 30.8 percent of the applications for political asylum were approved for Chinese immigrants caught trying to enter the country in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, 1992, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review. An even higher percentage of Chinese applicants -- 85 percent -- received political asylum when their plea was made voluntarily to an asylum officer of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, rather than in court.
Immigration judges work separately from the INS, answering instead to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, also in the Justice Department. Immigration lawyers say that the attitude of immigration judges toward asylum claims from Chinese seems to have become stricter starting early this year.
Yet human rights advocates assert that the attention drawn to the Golden Venture cases has affected the way judges are handling them.
'A radical departure'
"There is a radical departure from past procedure," said Arthur Helton, director of the refugee project on the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "We're concerned that worthy claims are going unrecognized."
Mr. Helton added in a letter to the Justice Department: "We are concerned that a pernicious message may have made its way into the approach of some immigration judges and INS trial attorneys handling these cases -- namely to swiftly deny the claims of these individuals."
Clinton administration officials insist that there has been no change in policy on asylum claims by Chinese. But they are trying to process the cases quickly, they say, as is often done when immigrants are being held in detention at federal expense.
Attorney General Janet Reno is expected to decide soon, Ms. Coven said, on appeals in two cases that will set a precedent on whether to allow political asylum to Chinese on the basis of persecution under the one-child policy.
If she follows an argument set out in a 1989 case, then asylum applicants will need to demonstrate that they were singled out for persecution because of a political or religious belief. If she follows an argument favored by former INS General Counsel Grover Joseph Rees, then any Chinese who can demonstrate persecution under the one-child policy will qualify for asylum.
One of the problems facing Ms. Reno and her staff is the difficulty in determining which cases are worthy. Since 1979, China has limited each married couple to one child. But enforcement of the policy varies from area to area and in some cases includes forced sterilization, forced abortion, other involuntary birth-control methods and heavy fines.
A typical story
Lin Ping's case appears to be typical. His story, as told by his lawyer, Craig Trebilcock, goes as follows:
He was forced to leave his home village in Fujian province after an incident that began when the police came to force his wife, 10 days after she gave birth to their second child, to go to a hospital to be sterilized.
Since his wife was still bedridden from a difficult childbirth, Mr. Lin said, he feared that she might not survive an operation. His pleadings ignored, he physically attacked the police and was soon joined by his relatives and neighbors in what became a melee. The officers were forced to back off.
Knowing that the police would return in strength the next day, Mr. Lin and his wife packed a few belongings and left their village before dawn. Months later, leaving his wife and two children hidden with relatives, Mr. Lin borrowed enough money to get passage abroad.
It is a compelling story. And yet, as his lawyer, Mr. Trebilcock, concedes, it is without more than a few scraps of documentary evidence, and depends largely on Mr. Lin's word.
When asked about details of his case in the phone interview, Mr. Lin seemed surprised and almost belligerent. "I'd rather not talk about the past," he said at one point. "I have nothing more to say about that."
Mr. Trebilcock said his client had been willing to discuss his case at length during his asylum hearing, but may have felt uneasy talking about his life in China with a reporter, fearing that public attention would bring a reprisal to his family in China or to himself if he returns.
Mr. Lin said he had felt ill and short-tempered since last month, when he and more than 100 others at York County Prison went on a four-day hunger strike.
He complained about all the American cheese and white bread in his prison diet -- "No rice at all" -- but added that worst of all was the psychological pressure that grows as he realizes that his physical suffering, and the considerable debt his family bears for trying to send him here, were all wasted.