YORK, Pa. -- At first, they were strangers -- Chinese refugees locked away in the York County Prison and residents going about their business in this blue-collar town. Three-and-a-half years later, they have become allies in a battle nearly won.
Any day now, 39 asylum-seekers will gain their freedom, and waiting on the other side of the prison door will be the townspeople whose faith and moxie helped make it happen.
Last week, President Clinton ordered the detainees released, saying these men, smuggled here on a ship called the Golden Venture that ran aground in New York, had been in prison long enough. But the immigrants, who are to be freed by March 1, credit a band of lawyers, clergy, stay-at-home moms and others in this close-knit community with keeping their spirits up and cases alive.
A wave of joy has swept through town in recent days, touching off a frenzy of activity as people gather clothing and find housing for detainees.
"I have been hearing the Hallelujah chorus in my head ever since the announcement," says Harriet Miller, 55, a great-grandmother who is coordinating housing. "It's been a real celebration."
Early on, the men wondered why these people were befriending strangers. In labored English, they asked: Why are you doing this?
Now at least some understand. "We have different cultures," says You Li, 27, who left China to escape the country's one-child, one-family policy. "But they cared about us. What they have done moved me. They worked very hard for freedom."
And in that work, one group's improbable journey begot another, transforming ordinary citizens into crusaders, teaching them hard lessons about their government and changing the place they call home.
It's evident on Market Street where International Friendship House -- a transitional home for asylum-seekers -- is about to be renovated. And at the local historical society where the prisoners' folded paper sculptures are part of the permanent collection. And at a community forum this week, where supporters listened to the story of a released Chinese detainee and discussed the future of People of the Golden Vision, the immigrants rights group that has grown out of this experience.
"This has become part of the lore of York, Pa.," says Craig Trebilcock, a lawyer who has volunteered on all the cases. "We developed a strong personal bond with the men. They weren't just another legal matter. They became our friends. They are very proud and would never say what we could see in their eyes, which was, 'Please help me. I'm scared to death.' "
They had reason to be afraid. Smuggled out of China, they spent months on a rusty freighter filled with 286 Chinese emmigrants. In June 1993, when the ship hit a sandbar, many swam to shore. Ten died and six escaped.
More than 100 landed in York County Prison, which contracts space out to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Local lawyers with no experience in immigration law volunteered on the cases.
Most times, their grounds for seeking asylum were China's population control policies, which the men say include forced sterilization and abortion. In nearly all cases, asylum was denied.
The defeat was a rallying cry for the community. Appeals were filed, a support group was formed, and residents began wearing yellow ribbons for the cause.
But the most notable event was a Sunday vigil outside the prison. At its low point -- during last year's blizzard -- only four people got there to pray. But for 182 weeks, residents always arrived.
These people -- Jews, Christians, factory workers, lawyers, Republicans, Democrats -- had little in common except their devotion to the cause. Initially, some wondered whether that would be enough to unite them.
"When we started, it kept running through my mind: How can I work on the same side of an issue with these crazy, left-wing, liberal wackos?" says Cindy Lobach, 39, a mother of three who has been active in the cause. Conversely, she believes others were thinking of her: "How can I work on the same side as this dittohead Rush Limbaugh conservative?"
But the imprisonment of these men proved a powerful motivator.
The Rev. Joan Maruskin, pastor of the Christ United Methodist Church and coordinator of the support group, used her pulpit to open minds.
"The Bible is the ultimate immigration handbook," she says. "Moses was a criminal alien who came back to Egypt to lead a nation of aliens into the promised land. Jesus was an undocumented refugee. What would have happened to Christianity if they had put him in an INS prison?"
What also brought attention was art the men created. Lobach, who lives in York, began selling their ornate works made from magazines, toilet paper and glue to earn money for their cause. She has raised $135,000. A New York gallery has stocked some works, including the freedom bird, which is akin to a bald eagle. (In York, the birds sell for $35. In New York, they sell for $245.)
But at a time when anti-immigration sentiment is strong across the country, some residents have openly objected to this effort. Anonymous calls caused Trebilcock to get an unlisted phone number. The Lobachs had eggs thrown at their home.
And Sterling Showers, a materials handler at a heating and refrigeration company, visits the men weekly and routinely hears taunts from co-workers about it.
"They say, 'Why are you helping those Chinese? They are going to take your job when they get out,' " says Showers, 59. "I just walk away. You can't reason with them."
Some residents believe the government was counting on people not noticing.
"It's a small town," says Beverly Church, a paralegal who lives in Gettysburg, Pa., and has volunteered extensively on these cases. "They thought, 'Let's just put them there. No one will ever care.' But guess what? We did."
She cared so much that she feels differently about her government now. "I never thought about organizations like the IRS and INS becoming more powerful than the people," Church says. "But they think they are. It was time to pay more attention."
Perhaps that's why when the news spread a week ago that these men and 15 others from the Golden Venture in California would be freed, supporters were skeptical.
But when Lobach and her husband, Jeff, a lawyer also active in the effort, spoke to Rep. Bill Goodling, a Pennsylvania Republican who had met with the president, they finally allowed themselves to believe.
Most of the men are planning to stay a night or two with families in York once they are released. Half may remain and look for work. But even when they leave prison, their petitions for asylum will continue to be reviewed.
The work ahead didn't stop supporters from celebrating at Sunday's vigil. One hundred people showed up for what amounted to a victory rally.
Cindy Lobach made a banner emblazoned with the word "Freedom." And instead of singing a standard of their cause, "We Shall Overcome," the group changed the words. They sang, "We Have Overcome."
Pub Date: 2/21/97