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Chinese detainees win temporary freedom in Pennsylvania


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February 26, 1997
Web posted at: 10:24 p.m. EST (0324 GMT)

From Correspondent Brian Jenkins

YORK, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Nearly four years after a ship carrying more than 280 illegal Chinese immigrants ran aground off New York City, 39 Chinese men were released Wednesday from detention.

Their temporary freedom is the result of thousands of hours of effort by York residents, who took their case all the way to the top of the U.S. government.


Holding up some of the intricate paper sculptures they made to pass time and raise money, 39 Chinese men left the York County Jail drinking in what they'd been craving most: fresh air.

There was only stale air below and salt air above during a long voyage from Asia on a rusty freighter called the "Golden Venture."

The ship ran aground on a sandbar off New York in June 1993. At least six of the 282 passengers drowned. Six more escaped. Immigration officials sent 118 to York. Some won release. Many were deported.

"Instead of trying to let them tell their stories and decide who was eligible for asylum, they were trying to rush them out of here as fast as they possibly could," said York resident Cindy Lobach.

Congressman lobbied Clinton for their release

Lobach got caught up in their plight after her husband, Jeff, then the head of the county bar association, was asked to assign lawyers for the detainees.

Knowing that people in York had never thought much about immigration issues, Cindy Lobach started a weekly newsletter. The list of subscribers grew to 700.

"It cuts across the political spectrum, people of all races, people of all religions, people of all persuasions in every way, and all professions," said Jeff Lobach.

Calling their group "Golden Vision," they pressed their congressman to seek parole for the men. Republican Rep. Bill Goodling, in turn, lobbied Bill Clinton, telling the president the detention made no sense, given U.S. policy toward China.

"How can we, out of one side of our mouth, say their human rights policy is deplorable, and out of the other side say we're going either to incarcerate these people forever or send them back to a deplorable condition?" Goodling said.

Many say they fled forced sterilization

Two weeks ago came news of a presidential order: the men would be set free, pending hearings on their claims for asylum.

Shi Jian Le, released last week on an artist's visa, has a sculpture of two birds in a cage on display at a museum in New York's Chinatown.

To him, it represents "my dream of a new life, so someday I'll be like a bird, free, in this country," he said.

Most of the other men claim they paid smugglers to help them escape forced sterilization in China.

Their new friends say only the president can prevent their return and likely punishment. For now, the men are happy for a taste of freedom, and a chance to work at whatever jobs they can find.


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