Illegal immigrants cling to hope in York, Pa., jail


YORK, Pa. -- Dozens of undocumented Chinese immigrants who are in jail here are rushing to get baptized as Christians, even though most are Buddhists, in a misguided bid to gain freedom as legal immigrants.

"I am Christian. I've been baptized. My roommate has been baptized, too, and he said if you are Christian you are eligible for bail," said Lin Min Long, 28, a textile factory worker from Fujian, and one of 110 men from the smugglers' ship, the Golden Venture, which ran aground off New York City in June.

Their lawyers and other advocates say that six months after their dramatic and illegal entry into the United States, the men -- and about 150 more who are in jail in nearby Allentown, and others in Mississippi and New Orleans -- are clinging to the smallest shred of hope, even to the unfounded rumor that conversion to Christianity means political asylum, as they fight to remain in the country.

dTC All of them have applied for political asylum, but only a handful of them have been released, most to relatives in New York City.

Just weeks before the Golden Venture disgorged 277 undocumented Chinese immigrants -- after a harrowing, months-long voyage from China through Southeast Asia and Africa -- it seemed that anyone could be granted political asylum in the United States by claiming to have been victimized by China's one-child-per-family population policy, which includes forced sterilizations and abortions.

But that changed after the Golden Venture, as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, responding to a firestorm of debate on the country's immigration policies, cracked down on undocumented immigrants.

Instead of granting asylum to Chinese applicants, the government sent them to jail and denied them bail. Some women refugees who are being held in federal jails in New Orleans presented well-documented cases of forced sterilizations and abortions, a fact acknowledged by administrative judges, but the women were denied asylum anyway.

"We had 14 boats before the Golden Venture. We haven't had another for six months," said Duke Austin, a spokesman for the INS.

But the INS vow "to make an example" of the Golden Venture -- and to discourage other smuggler's ships -- resulted in unfair asylum hearings for the Chinese applicants, said Craig Trebilcock, a Pennsylvania lawyer who is leading the fight against deportation.

Mr. Trebilcock and a team of lawyers have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., and have achieved minor success: a temporary court order, effective until tomorrow, banning the INS from deporting the Golden Venture refugees in Pennsylvania, and a judge's order that will allow immigration lawyers to subpoena documents and compel INS officials to submit to depositions.

Inside the York prison, the 110 men swing from desperation to high hopes, according to refugees, lawyers and advocates. Some are so depressed that they fall silent for days at a time.

An outpouring of support from a coalition of advocates, lawyers and church workers who have visited the refugees has given many newfound hope.

The local bishop of the United Methodist Church has visited the group in York and issued a statement of support. A group called the People of the Golden Vision is writing letters to Congress and the White House, lobbying for release of the inmates.

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