Why Baja's Chinese refugees risked everything

The impossible shore

Coastguardsman throws blanket to refugees
  • Coastguardsman throws blanket to refugees
  • Image by David McNew

The bow of the To Ching No. 212 looks like the nose of a fighter who should have quit sooner. Another almost catastrophic dent distorts the port stern. Above it some 20 feet of deck rail caved in, without casualties probably, but how would we ever know? Now, pinned between a 60-meter patrullero and the Ensenada Naval Pier, she’s no longer a danger. When Mexico officially seized the ship, its crew, and 254 undocumented Chinese passengers, it did the sea a favor and decommissioned her.

If you were a citizen of the People’s Republic of China and you needed to emigrate, you’d find you don’t have many options.

If you were a citizen of the People’s Republic of China and you needed to emigrate, you’d find you don’t have many options.

That was at 3:15 this morning. About two hours later the government did the same to the Long Sen, which lies with its navy escort at the far end of the pier. From a distance, the Long Sen looks as though it offered its 169 would-be immigrants a sounder passage. Less rust has erupted through the latest white paint job, and a blue-and-white awning spans the afterdeck, lending a sort of Mediterranean holiday touch. But alongside, it hints at a different, more unsettling distress.

The Comandante of the Ensenada Naval Base was telling me how much he admires the Chinese, inventors of gunpowder.

The Comandante of the Ensenada Naval Base was telling me how much he admires the Chinese, inventors of gunpowder.

Collage by Mikhail M. Zlatovsky and Bob Weaver

A fit of graffiti covers the ship’s bridge. It begins with a lovely spray-painted palm. Then, alternating red, black, and yellow, there’s a huge rose floating over some kind of cactus, two domestic cats, and a Chinese character of interlocked, maze-like right angles. A face, a large U with inverted Vs for its mouth and eyes, weeps strings of four tears starting from each cheek. There’s a huge, grotesque profile of a head and a hand that’s presenting a cigarette holder to its gaping mouth, the cigarette smouldering. He’s also weeping. Above it all, there’s a perfect S.O.S.

Coast Guard ferries food to boat people

Coast Guard ferries food to boat people

It’s Saturday, July 16, about 8:00 in the morning. Press are still being turned back at the port’s gatehouse, but small groups of tuna fishermen and packers move freely between the two barquechinos— a practically indefensible policy, the guard finally agreed, granting me 15 minutes, sin fotos. Starting back out, I walk between two sets of what could be fishing fleet owners or investors, 50-ish men in dress shoes and sweaters. Indicating a garage door about halfway down a block-long corrugated metal warehouse, one announces, “They’ve got the chinitos in there." "Chinitas!" his partner adds, with unpleasant emphasis.

Deck of the 200-foot fishing vessel Chin Lung Hsaing

Deck of the 200-foot fishing vessel Chin Lung Hsaing

The garage door is open about three feet. A dozen Mexican marines, visible from the knees down, stand at ease, the vented muzzles of their automatics nearly grazing the concrete. A gym whistle blows as I bend to look in, and two or three of them move deeper into the room. It takes time, several heartbeats, to penetrate the scrim of daylight, and just when I see, boots wheel and start toward me.

Media covering the story

Media covering the story

The rear of the bodega has been divided into two floor-to-ceiling chain-link cages. Inside each, between 50 and 75 People’s Republic of China citizens wait, every one in blue jeans, their faces drained and vacant. In the pen on the right, men and women sit shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter and back-to-back in a row down the middle. In the other, it’s all men, arranged squatting front-to-back in a line that starts around the outside and coils toward the middle, each man practically sitting in the next one’s lap. The marine’s quick movement raises a few faces toward me — maybe the only non government U.S. citizen they’ll manage to see.

Karen Niksh: "It’s sometimes hard for refugees to explain in five or ten minutes why they are fleeing.”

Karen Niksh: "It’s sometimes hard for refugees to explain in five or ten minutes why they are fleeing.”

By now, a dozen buses that blew through the port’s gate with 145 of the chinos’ traveling companions will have covered the 75 miles to the Tijuana airport, where an Air Gambia charter waits to deliver them back to the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, still outside Mexican waters, a third barquechino called the Sing Li is in its 15th day of the U.S. Coast Guard’s seagoing detention and its third of open rebellion. .

Carlos Holguin: For the asylum seeker trying to prove persecution, it’s than more the knock on the door at night.

Carlos Holguin: For the asylum seeker trying to prove persecution, it’s than more the knock on the door at night.

The Comandante of the Ensenada Naval Base was telling me how much he admires the Chinese, inventors of gunpowder. This was last Tuesday. He’d already traced Asian immigration to North America back to the land bridge, outlined the operations of the Mexican Navy (coastal patrol, search and rescue, enforcing commercial fishing regulations), and defined military life as a life of plain sacrifice and submission to duty. The three senior officers he invited to sit in, trusted colleagues with expertise in certain areas that might interest me, hadn’t said a thing, except once when he wait looking for a word in English. He had been ridiculing the American love for — “Flipper,” a captain helped out — which has cost thousands of Mexican fishermen their jobs. Then, moving from gunpowder to the nuclear threat, he interrupted himself. “Last week a woman came into this office, a very beautiful, elegant woman, who offered me $150,000 to let those three barquechinos land.”

Josephine Pan, Richard Rogen. Rogen's client says that after his first child was born in 1992, family planning officials requested that his wife be sterilized.

Josephine Pan, Richard Rogen. Rogen's client says that after his first child was born in 1992, family planning officials requested that his wife be sterilized.

The Comandante had thrown her out, of course. But even had he been willing, it was a poorly timed offer. Since early July, the U.S. Coast Guard had been shadowing the To Ching, Long Sen, and Sing Li. On July 3, the Sing Li's engine conked. The Coast Guard answered the distress call, boarded her, and discovered 236 cramped passengers. With the permission of Taiwan, the flag state of the vessels. Coast Guard armed boarding parties took control of the other two on American Independence Day. Some onboard the barquechinos, naively believing that the approaching American ships meant their ordeal was over, had put on their best clothes, even ties, to greet them.

Media surrounds Interior Ministry's Jorge Media.

Media surrounds Interior Ministry's Jorge Media.

Instead, their boats had become floating detention centers for 670 men, women, and teenagers whose only actual crime so far has been leaving the PRC without permission. But this was more preventive detention, based on the passengers’ apparent desire to enter the U.S. illegally and, once there, to use our laws and slow review system to remain and work in the U.S. For eight days they’d been stuck riding out a rough swell left over from Hurricane Calvin some 60 miles off Baja "while,” in a Southern California TV anchorman’s words, “the U.S. government decides what to do with this latest flood of human cargo.”

Boat people transported from Ensenada to Tijuana for deportation

Boat people transported from Ensenada to Tijuana for deportation

The truth is, we’d already made a decision: the Mexicans would process the boats. We just hadn’t finished convincing the Mexicans. I met with the Comandante the day newspapers carried his country’s most adamant and injured refusal yet, along with photos taken by journalists ferried out to the Sing Li of young men crowding the deck and hoisting signs that read, for example, “Bread We Want Freedom We Want” and “Save Us U.S.A.” I’d dropped by the headquarters to ask if the Mexican Navy had any first-hand information about conditions aboard the boats, which human rights advocates had now begun to protest; even the Coast Guard was calling the boats “squalid” and the mood “tense.” But the Comandante assumed I’d come to ask not whether but when the boats would be brought to Ensenada.

In Ensenada jail

In Ensenada jail

Before I could ask anything, he picked up a grey paperback, flipped through its highlighted pages, and read how his duty to protect tlje integrity of Mexican territory requires him to turn the boats back if they try to enter the 12-mile limit. “I’ll continue to do that until,” he pointed to a framed poster-portrait of President Salinas de Gortari, “he orders me to let them in. If he does...” He closed the book and tossed it to the side of his glass-top desk.

Ensenada residents delivered blankets and clothes to the jail.

Ensenada residents delivered blankets and clothes to the jail.

If you were a citizen of the People’s Republic of China and felt, if for whatever reason, that you needed to emigrate to the U.S., If you’d find you don’t have many options. If you already had close family there or were, say, a doctor or other professional, you might be lucky enough to receive one of the 35,000 or so visas granted each year. The only other way to enter the U.S. legally, with refugee status, is difficult and, considering China’s heavy-handed politics and human rights record, surprisingly rare. No refugee processing at all happens inside the PRC, which means you’ll need to make your way — illegally—to the U.S. embassy in a third country, Taiwan for instance, and remain there during the lengthy review period. Of 100,229 refugees who arrived in the U.S. in 1991, only 192 were Chinese. (By contrast, 39,116 were from the former Soviet Union.) Or else you could enter the U.S. illegally and either try to win asylum when you get there or live in the margins as an undocumented immigrant. But you still face the obstacle of geography. To fly, you will need fraudulent documents and an exit visa. Or you can go by boat.

Chinese man shaking hands with Ensenada policeman

Chinese man shaking hands with Ensenada policeman

The boat people’s smugglers like to think of themselves as business interests providing a necessary, or at least desired, service, according to lawyers I spoke with who have been approached by their representatives. Smugglers bill an average of $25,000 for this service; that’s $5 million for a boatload of 200 passengers. They have overhead — for starters, a boat, usually a resurrected Taiwanese fishing trawler that was forced out of service when new international regulations closed their fisheries. It may not be reusable, since even a successful trip could well end with the boat being confiscated. There’s also payroll. Moving immigrants isn’t like stashing Baggies in a sealed cargo container and sending a driver around to a warehouse at the other end. These large, coordinated ventures employ recruiters who work in Chinese cities and villages, fishermen who spirit passengers off the mainland to the ship (and sometimes off the ship into the U.S.), and a crew, whose pay must be commensurate with the considerable risk. That still leaves a huge profit — which only proves, they’d say, that the demand is there.

Packaging can’t salvage their image from two facts: immigrant smuggling is a felony, so these ventures are by definition criminal syndicates; and the fares are often exacted at great pain to their clients. Twenty-five thousand dollars is an impossible figure for people whose incomes average under $350 a year. Instead, passengers travel for a small down payment and then pay off the balance from their earnings in the U.S. Those who don’t find adequate work become indentured to employers, usually restaurateurs or garment makers, where they may endure grueling hours for subminimum wage until the debt is paid.

This dark, Chinatown core to the boat people story has attracted the press. A June Newsweek article ran under the provocative title “The New Slave Trade." A Los Angeles Times Magazine piece profiled young boat people now living in New York, some of whom were working off their debts in organized crime activities like gambling, drugs, and prostitution.

In fact, the barquechinos had sailed into the middle of a media obsession with the boat people. Newsweek's article followed the practically made-for-TV tragedy of the Golden Venture, when six young men drowned trying to swim to shore after the vessel — ran aground off Rockaway, Long Island. This spectacle capped what was beginning to seem like a steady onslaught of immigrant ships. A human migration that a year ago had been invisible to all but the professionals and specialists suddenly had become a “wave,” a “rising tide,” a “flood.” Caught up in the frenzy (and unable to imagine the scene that would be played out less than a month later), the head of investigations at the Immigration and Naturalization Service told Newsweek, “We can’t send our people, like Barbary pirates, out to interdict vessels on the high seas. Meanwhile, they’re coming from every direction, every ocean — the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Caribbean. There are too many oceans, too many ships.” The media announced that 100,000 Chinese enter the U.S. illegally each year.

“That’s ridiculous," INS spokesman Rick Kenney now says, although he admits that the figure probably originated at his agency, based on some bad math with arbitrary figures. “The real figure might be one tenth of that. It’s probably around 10,000, although that might even be a high guess.” Duke Austin, also of the INS, says there has been “somewhat of an increase in overall Chinese arrivals,” but he hardly sounds the alarm. Arrests at airports — the place where most attempts still occur — have been pretty consistent over the last several years. As for boat people, the INS knows of 14 smuggling ships that have managed to make the U.S. in the last two years, delivering a total of 2300 passengers — all of whom have filed asylum petitions and 1300 of whom remain in INS detention facilities. The To Ching, Long Sen, and Sing Li will bring to six the total that, as far as the INS knows, have failed to make it to the U.S. One of the previous three failures ended up in Honduras and one in Mexico.

The Mexican ship landed near Ensenada. Its 306 passengers were found warehoused here in April, and soon reports were calling Mexico a major clandestine route for smugglers of undocumented Chinese immigrants into the U.S. I spent a long morning knocking around the fishing pier, asking patrones and fish taco vendors and idle toughs what they knew about the barquechinos and the movement of Chinese through Baja to the U.S. Everyone was willing to talk — and utterly in the dark. Almost everything I heard related to the April incident, and nearly all of it had come from the news. And yet almost everyone wanted to assume the three boats are part of something shadowy and huge. El Gallo, an Ensenada weekly newspaper, ran a story full of wild theorizing after the 306 were detained: “Importing some 5000 Chinese a week over a ten-year period, along with the fact they’re as productive as rabbits, in another 30 years you can bet things will be different.” How? “Chinese immigrants will possess almost all the economic and political power in the U.S.”

The bartender at Anthony’s, a dance bar a block up from the pier, was more straightforward. I stopped in because I’d heard that members of the small local Chinese community loosened up here alongside fishermen and tourists. But at 2:00 p.m. it was just me at the bar and four party girls in a booth drinking their way back from hangovers. “How many Chinese are there in China?” the bartender asked me rhetorically. He shoved me instant coffee along with the morning paper open to articles about the negotiations. He had to shout over the pointlessly loud tecno. “If I were an American, I’d be worried,” he counseled. “It’s an invasion.”

For the record, just over 1,170,000,000 Chinese were living in China around our New Year. The figure, released in April, stunned world population experts — not because it is unfathomably huge, but because it’s far below what they’d expected. The head of the State Family Planning Commission delivered the data herself at a live press conference, which gives some idea of how the Chinese government feels about it. They’ve slowed births to a rate roughly equal to ours, and they’ve done it 15 years ahead of their own ambitious schedule. The image of PRC citizens crowding the decks of rickety ships may inspire speculation about China’s population, but the irony is that the boat people’s story is more closely linked to a successful, if controversial “one-couple, one-child” policy — a link created over a decade ago, when U.S. foreign policy met the politics of abortion.

In 1984, at a United Nations population conference in Mexico City, the Reagan administration went public with the odd proposition that runaway population growth doesn’t necessarily hurt poor countries. This was to be a comfort, since at the same forum it was announcing that the U.S. would no longer fund international family planning agencies offering abortion-related services. Early the next year, reports surfaced that China’s one-couple, one-child program included widespread abortions, coerced sterilizations, and even infanticide. Reagan immediately withheld that part of the United Nations Population Fund’s annual budget that it spent in China. Congress went even further, voting to cut off funds to any organization supporting programs that included forced abortions and sterilizations, in one of the right-to-life movement’s biggest legislative victories.

Our always-equivocal dealings with China meant we didn’t really press the point directly. But concern over what has come to be known as reproductive persecution was making its way into Justice Department memos, documents that define and guide, among other things, immigration policy. Under Reagan, Attorney General Ed Meese ordered the INS to give special consideration to asylum-seekers claiming reproductive persecution, even though this is not within the conventional definition of a refugee as one who has a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Richard Thornburgh, President Bush’s Attorney General, took the argument further; those who were afraid they’d be forced to submit to abortion or sterilization would be said to have a well-founded fear of persecution based on political opinion.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, in the course of crafting what must be one of history’s most ambiguous foreign policies — supporting weak sanctions while championing China’s Most Favored Nation status — George Bush included a reproductive rights clause in an executive order extending visas and other rights to PRC nationals who were then residing in the U.S. The order directed the Secretary of State and Attorney General to provide “enhanced consideration under the immigration laws for individuals from any country who express a fear of persecution upon return to their country related to that country’s policy of forced abortion or coerced sterilization.”

President Clinton hasn’t rescinded the Bush order, which remains in effect until 1994 for those Chinese who were in the U.S. in 1990. In March, Clinton did announce he would resume funding to the U.N. Population Fund. But that may yet be a controversial move. The new population figures, together with anecdotal accounts from the Chinese countryside, suggest that the one-couple, one-child policy has been energetically enforced in the last few years. The New York Times reported in April that this crackdown began in 1991, when a “responsibility system" was implemented, under which local authorities face fines if population targets aren’t met. In 1991, 12.5 million Chinese underwent sterilization, mostly women by tubal ligations, and in 1992 another 6.5 million — a decrease due less to any easing of pressure than to the fact that most targeted women had already been sterilized.

How voluntary these sterilizations are isn’t clear. Human rights organizations, operating largely in the dark when it comes to China anyway, have been reluctant to stray into an area beyond the five conventional categories of persecution. Even Western diplomats who follow China’s family-planning program admitted in April they had no clue such an intense push was happening. While most believe that policy enforcement is less abusive than in the early 1980s, nobody denies that coercion continues. The level of coercion seems to vary from place to place and often depends on the individual local authorities. Punishments for exceeding family size guidelines generally take the form of fines, affordable to some but crushing to peasants. And it can go further. The Times reporter found that in some areas those not in compliance had their houses destroyed and property confiscated.

All 2300 Chinese boat people the INS has apprehended have applied for political asylum, most claiming some form of reproductive persecution. The Clinton administration contends most if not all of these are really economic migrants, driven to the U.S. to seek work, not to escape persecution. Immigration reform advocates point to the boat people as an example of the abuse and fraud they say has overwhelmed our asylum system in recent years, a system now so backlogged that even a dubious petition can gain an applicant years of residence in the U.S. while his application slogs through the appeals process. Even immigrants’ rights attorneys who have come in contact with boat people’s cases agree that many are boilerplate claims, which suggests that smugglers have coached passengers to pursue this line.

Still, it’s hard to imagine anything that would affect more citizens or penetrate more deeply into what we would consider basic liberty than a state-run family planning program. Chinese officials have at times resorted to coercive sterilizations and abortions; among the boat people, wouldn’t some have run afoul of the policy or have reason to fear its methods? For them, the pressing question may now be, does the U.S. still consider this abuse?

The so-called safehouse hides its face behind its meaningless brick columns in Maneadero, a development some ten kilometers west of Ensenada. It took me almost an hour of cross-referencing residents’ directions to find the neighborhood, a grid of dirt streets traced onto a floodplain; and even when I found the right street, one where all the other houses are white and without pretense, I drove past it three times. It has a satellite dish that inhales all sunlight before it can reach the facade, a darkly magical effect for a house whose story sounds like sad magical realism.

For four furious days in April, neighbors watched workmen encircle the back yard with a giant cinderblock wall. They didn’t quite finish. One side only made it up eight feet, leaving the wire concrete forms reaching into the air. The back wall saved room for a garage door, but the door was never added. A collage of flattened boxes and plywood stamped “Made in Indonesia” was erected in its place. Then came a spate of deliveries, food, water trucks that unloaded dozens of jugs, and then the noise. “At night they’d play banda superloud to hide the voices,” a woman who lives across the street told me. Next door, two sisters complained, “They threw a lot of garbage out. It really began to stink.”

But Mexicans respect privacy. Friends of mine who live in L.A. complain about how your private business — a fight with your spouse, punishing your kid, just kicking back and partying — can earn you a visit from police. The children are still curious, though. On April 26, one dared to peek through the makeshift door on the way home from school. What she saw would have made the ultimate show-and-tell: true chinos, 292 men and 14 women, crouching in the shade,of the walls, crowded under tented blankets and lines of laundry. That evening someone, probably a parent, called the police.

By the time they ecoordinated the raid with federal police, it was almost too late. Vans had arrived to transport the first groups to the U.S. border, and two managed to load and escape in the confusion. One was found later, abandoned along the old highway to Tijuana, identifiable by the blankets and trash and Chinese newspaper scraps inside. For residents, how 306 clearly alien human beings could have materialized among them became a favorite speculation. Then, about 25 kilometers away, family and friends of two missing Ensenada fishermen were combing the shoreline for their bodies or boat when they came across a new 12-passenger, 200-horsepower launch, blankets and Chinese newspaper scraps in its hull, peacefully leaking gasoline onto the rocks. Here was where smugglers had run them ashore, it was reasoned, then trucked them across the ridge dividing Ensenada from the Pacific. That the landing lies on the property of a cement operation that is idle at night probably had more to do with the smuggler’s choice than the uncanny fact of its name: Punta China.

Badly dehydrated from five days in the open, the boat people were transferred to the Ensenada jail and an appropriated local gym.

Ensenada residents, moved by the chinos bitter luck and pitiable condition, delivered blankets and clothes. Doctors volunteered medical services. The local Chinese community brought home-cooked meals. After several days as the half-guests, half-prisoners of the City of Ensenada, they were moved to a gym in Mexicali. Again they waited, while Servicios Migratorios worked out the logistics of their repatriation, including routing a flight from Baja California to the People’s Republic without refueling in either Alaska or Hawaii, which the U.S. wouldn’t allow. Finally, a bus delivered the group to the Mexicali airport.

It was there that this story passes from a strange episode into legend. As they were being led out of the terminal to board the plane, more than a hundred of the detainees broke and ran, scattering into sidestreets and making their way toward the U.S. border. The Border Patrol was alerted, and within minutes they began filling their Suburbans and vans with undocumented Chinese, who proceeded to request asylum.

Having watched their compatriots make their break, those who had already boarded or who hadn’t been in a position to run were flown to the Chinese mainland, accompanied by Mexican immigration police and at U.S. expense. It was a dolorous flight. Passengers wept openly, according to Asian press reports, some expressing fear of what penalties they might face for leaving the PRC illegally. Whether or not those fears were realized, they’re no doubt still dealing with personal and financial fallout from their decision to leave. Incredibly, when they think back to the Ensenada safehouse, what they remember probably isn’t much different from what I saw nearly three months later. The yard might have been picked through, but little had been removed. It remained a chaos of crates, blankets, and concrete blocks, upset as though by a huge wind. Two rough-cut 2-by-6s stood in the middle, the twine between them still flying shredded plastic and two torn shirts like a flag planted in some unrediscovered world.

The day after I met with the Comandante, we learned he would he laying aside his book and bringing the barquechinos into Ensenada. Mexico insisted its decision had been independent, made out of humanitarian concern for the welfare of the passengers.

Indeed, their statements suggested alarm over the state of the “more than 600 human beings abandoned practically to their fate on the high seas, whose physical integrity and health conditions are seriously threatened,” an artful gloss not only of the politics behind its own decision, especially the politics of NAFTA, but of any U.S. role in the lives of the passengers.

On Thursday, at one of the first briefings for the press that now thronged to Ensenada, nobody challenged the government’s spokesman on the implications of the statements: that extending their seagoing detention had become dangerous and inhumane.

Phones and faxes were installed in a small cocktail party room at the San Nicolas Resort Hotel, along with rows of folding tables and a dozen pre-IBM electric typewriters. There wasn’t much typing happening. The press, U.S., Mexican, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese, expected a quick event; instead Dr. Jorge Medina Viedas, communications director for Mexico’s Interior Department, offered four- or five-a-day briefings. These would begin when he rushed in, usually signing off a conversation on his cellular phone, and often continue informally in the lobby long after they had officially ended. Medina, an owlish, professorial man who answered questions in a way that made it seem he was giving you, confidentially, a little extra information, had adopted a solemn, harried attitude that softened into anguished compassion whenever he spoke of the passengers themselves. Between briefings, rumors incubated and hatched. One that survived an entire day was a report that the U.S. was tracking another 70 smuggling ships on the Pacific.

One of the more revealing sessions =. was dedicated to discrediting a story that had run the previous day in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Copley News Service, quoting from an INS internal report summarizing “unevaluated intelligence” from Hong Kong, reported that a Chinese syndicate had made a deal with a “senior Mexican General stationed in Baja California Norte...to guarantee that two boatloads of Chinese aliens per month could land in Baja California.’' The terms were elaborately detailed: the smugglers agreed to bring no more than 300 per boat, on cargo, not fishing, vessels. The general agreed not to confiscate boats and to provide military help in offloading boats and transporting passengers to the border and surveillance support to help the migrants elude the U.S. Border Patrol. He’d get $1200 per passenger, a potential kickback of $720,000 per month. In order to assure they could deliver this many passengers, smugglers had agreed to cut the fare to $15,000 per person.

Without comment, Medina Viedas distributed a four-page packet containing a statement made by interim INS director Chris Sale explaining that such unsubstantiated material is often included in internal reports, to be verified later, and that “the INS has no further information and has concluded its investigation.” Covering this was a letter from U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte addressed to the Director of Servicios Migratorios and the Secretary of the Interior Department, in which, per their phone call, he sends along a written copy of Sale’s statement and reiterates his own personal conviction that the report is groundless. You can almost hear the sweat: “My government profoundly regrets whatever inconvenience the report in question may have caused the Mexican government, and, in particular, the Secretary of Defense.”

Finally, at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Medina Viedas announced that an operation would soon begin that would bring two of the boats into Ensenada harbor. He ran through some numbers— 28 buses, 50 police escorts, 2 planes standing by at the Tijuana airport. Flight plans had been approved that would, in the end, mean the migrants had circumnavigated the globe. The first would refuel in Barbados, Senegal, and the United Arab Emirates, the second in the Bahamas, the Azores, Cairo, Bombay, and Singapore. When someone asked whether Mexico was prepared to use force against the boat people, his tone darkened. Force would be used, he affirmed, if it became necessary to preserve the physical integrity of the migrants. There had been growing intimations of open hostility and even isolated violence aboard the boats. The day before, I’d asked if the passengers understood what was happening to them. Medina Viedas answered, for the first time in English, “I think so.” When I asked how they felt about it, he reverted to Spanish and lowered his voice. “The truth is, there are some who are agitating, those on one boat.” That was the Sing Li, and “continuing technical difficulties,” Medina Viedas now announced, would keep it at sea at least one more night, its 15th since the boats fell in with the Coast Guard.

During that conference Medina Viedas was interrupted by a phone call, from which he relayed the results of a U.S. asylum-screening process that had taken place aboard the boats: All but one of the requests had been rejected. That one applicant would become the second passenger from the barquechinos to set foot in the U.S. The other had been airlifted to San Diego several days earlier for emergency surgery to terminate an ectopic pregnancy.

The U.S. receives around 2000 asylum requests each week, which means more than 4000 people who had managed to reach U.S. soil may have asked for this relief during the time the three boats were held at bay off Baja. Three of these made the news: two Cuban baseball players and a fencer who defected at the World University Games in Buffalo, New York. One of the beisbolistas jumped the fence during batting practice; the other, a shortstop who leaves a pregnant wife behind, declared his decision in a post-game interview. “In the first place, I wanted the opportunity to be free, and the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which was to play professional baseball,” he explained, pointing to Rene Arocha, a rookie pitcher for the Cardinals who had defected two years ago, as his inspiration. “All the ballplayers in Cuba are aware of what Arocha is doing. He has been our motivation.”

He'll have two advantages as he pursues asylum — his star-athlete status, which may place him in a category of particularly desirable aliens, and the fact he’s Cuban. Cubans, like Eastern Europeans throughout the Cold War, have tended to enjoy the benefit of the doubt when it comes to establishing claims of persecution.

Before the smuggling ships began making the news, the approval rate for Chinese applicants was even higher than for Cubans, more than 70 percent for the past decade, reaching 85 percent last year. Overall, though, two out of three asylum applications are denied.

“The idea that winning political asylum in this country is a matter of mouthing the magic words and off you go is a complete distortion of the process,” says Carlos Holguin of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles. “Someone seeking asylum in the United States faces an extremely demanding standard. The burden is on the applicant to show they’re eligible for it. They’ve got to name names, give dates and details, and document their claims, which is often extremely difficult to do. Those who are in the business of persecuting people are not in the business of making that a matter of public record. It’s more the knock on the door at night, the anonymous note, the phone call threat from an unknown person. Even when we have people here who have been working with people from a particular country for years, it takes hours and hours of work to begin to document the kind of asylum claim that’s going to pass muster in this country.”

Karen Niksh of the National Immigration Law Center agrees, noting that asylum law practitioners often spend around 40 hours working up one case. Besides the complexity of asylum law and the need to be well versed on the situation in the home country, attorneys must spend considerable time interviewing their clients, who can find it difficult to articulate their fears. "It’s sometimes hard for refugees to tell a linear story, to explain in five or ten minutes why they are fleeing,” she has found. “It’s not uncommon to meet with clients many times without them mentioning important facts. Sometimes they don’t realize what’s important to the court, and sometimes, in spite of the guarantee of confidentiality, they’re still afraid. I’ve had clients who wouldn’t share any information if the office door was open, even if they knew nobody could hear them; they didn’t want to be seen talking. In the back of their minds there’s always the consideration, what will happen to me if I’m returned?"

This must have seemed an especially urgent question to the passengers on the barquechinos. The Clinton administration had by then made it clear they wouldn’t get near the U.S. asylum system, with its safeguards and appeals process. But to deny them hearings risked violating international laws prohibiting countries from returning migrants to places where their lives or liberty would be at risk. Clinton had recently shown a willingness to do just that when he reversed himself and endorsed the Supreme Court upholding the U.S. policy of turning Haitian boats back without hearing passengers’ asylum claims, but with the distance and the condition of the boats and passengers, there was no question of forcing the three boats back to Taiwan.

Instead, the administration dusted off and modified an earlier Haitian policy, the Haitian Interdiction Program. In that program, Haitians intercepted at sea were brought on board Coast Guard cutters and “pre-screened” by INS asylum officers, either ry on board the cutters or at the U.S. military a. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Those who could demonstrate a “credible fear of persecution” in those interviews were paroled into the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims, and the others were repatriated.

Even before a final agreement had been worked out with Mexico to process the boats, INS asylum officers boarded the To Ching, Long Sen, and Sing Li and handed out a two-question asylum application used by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The first question elicited basic biographical information and the second the applicant’s reasons for leaving his country of origin. With the help of translators, 184 of the 670 passengers filled out applications on the spot. These were collected and faxed to Geneva, where, at the request of the United States, they were quickly reviewed by UNHCR lawyers. The UNHCR returned 40 applications to the INS for further review, some that lacked crucial biographical data and some that had raised an eyebrow, along with those of the 18 passengers on the boats who were minors. INS asylum officers returned and interviewed these 58 aboard the barquechinos. On Friday, just before the boats sailed into Mexican waters, a 22-year-old schoolteacher and Christian who claimed he had suffered religious persecution was quietly ferried from the Long Sen to a Coast Guard cutter, and then airlifted to the U.S.

By requesting the UNHCR’s help, the administration hoped to escape the kinds of criticisms the Haitian Interdiction Program received in an interim report by the Ford Foundation-funded National Asylum Study Project of the Harvard Law School, which found that the quality of those INS interviews had been uneven and some interviewers hostile toward applicants and that foreign policy considerations had unduly influenced asylum decisions. But if UNHCR participation lent legitimacy to the process, it also let the U.S. circumvent the whole issue of reproductive persecution. INS asylum officers still operate under instructions to give enhanced consideration to those who fear coerced sterilization or abortion.

But the UNHCR adheres to the conventional five-category refugee definition. A UNHCR representative I spoke with confirmed that its lawyers might well have passed over asylum claims based on reproductive persecution — although those same applications might have received a favorable review from INS asylum officers.

The UNHCR spokesperson said the commission couldn’t comment on the U.S. handling of the asylum review process on the barquechinos, except to concede that “these were not the ideal conditions for reviewing asylum seekers.”

10:00 p.m. Friday, the San Nicolas Hotel no longer belonged to the press. Locals stoked the discotheque, and weekenders, Americans mostly, were stacked up two-deep at the check-in desk. An enormous, lavish wedding overwhelmed the lobby and halls; I counted ten bridesmaids on my way through. Two flower girls, dressed like they’d climbed out of old First Communion photographs, were dipping hands into the reflecting pool. Outside, the empty blocks between the hotel and water had become “Expo Ensenada,” a fair that featured several large—they seemed to me unprecedented — carnival rides. One of the first things the crews and passengers of the To Ching and Long Sen would see onshore would he this explosion of lights.

The press gathered outside the guardhouse at the main port entrance, waiting for Medina Viedas to conduct us to an observation area he said he’d arranged for us. This was to be about 150 yards from the landing pier. From there, groups of five (which had been determined by drawing business cards from a garbage can in a fastidious hour-long lottery after the last press conference) would be allowed to advance to a point close enough on the pier to observe all the details of the operation. A steady line of traffic advanced through the gate — a couple of troop transports, a minivan with what were soon rumored to be dignitaries from San Francisco’s Chinatown, three gleaming, oversized green ambulances. As these were entering, in what at that time seemed like the perfect expression of edgy press paranoia, a reporter signed off his cellular phone and informed us that his bureau had just told him that the AP had just reported that ten minutes before, at 11:51, the boats had landed.

A little paranoia, it turned out, wasn’t completely out of line. When Medina Viedas arrived, he announced that all press access to the port had been canceled. The American press grew indignant, with a few reporters venturing to educate the Mexican government’s representative about our first amendment. The Mexican press, I noticed, took the news with a kind of triumphant bitterness, as if they’d known all along, and confined their comments to short, vitriolic bursts that bordered on the personal.

Medina Viedas had over the course of three days become a sort of zookeeper to the press, a sustenance-provider whose arrival soothed its aimless pacing; but as the circle of some 40 of 50 reporters tightened, he actually appeared to lose stature. He went from apologetic to angry to wounded, finally shouting, “Don’t you think I’ve done everything I can for you?” He bought his way out by agreeing to propose a skeletal pool of a few camerapeople, modeled on U.S. military press regulations, but that wasn't going to happen either. The ban was non-negotiable, for “national security” reasons.

Around 12:30 a.m., a blossom of lights opened on the horizon. A port horn sounded, and a couple of companies of marines and soldiers jumped to it, arranging themselves every 50 feet the length of the port’s main jetty. The naval pier intersects the main jetty about 500 yards into the port and would be hidden behind a long warehouse. Two marines climbed onto the jetty’s high jumble of boulders to prevent press or any of a shifting group of onlookers from making their way along the water to a possible view. The lights separated into a clear line of boats, then into a solemn and pretty seven-vessel procession. A fast launch ran out to meet the lead ship, which began toward the breakwater, then seemed to shy and back off. Another hour passed. It turned cool. The water, which had been calm, lifted itself once and fell forward onto the rocks. There was, we learned later, some problem with one of the planes at the Tijuana airport.

The Mexicans were nervous. The Mexicali mishap and the tragedy of the Golden Venture had been grim lessons, and the ongoing agitations aboard the Sing Li only sharpened their awareness of the potential for a disaster. The despair of some of the passengers was considered absolute, and in that condition, who could say what they might do? And what then? In Honduras, which in May received and agreed to process a Honduran-registered smuggling ship caught off Florida, an officer had shot and killed a fleeing passenger. Planning for the worst, Mexico mobilized not only soldiers and sailors and marines, but air force pilots, frogmen, doctors, nurses, paramedics, immigration police, federal and highway and municipal police — over 800 personnel in all, distributed between the Ensenada port and the Tijuana airport, a truly huge show of force. The Mexicans’ sense that they had assumed this operation largely as a favor to the U.S. must have given it the heaviness of the cross at that moment.

At 3:00, a helicopter was sent up that made several passes, sweeping a searchlight across the harbor. The navy patrol led the To Ching through the breakwater, let it pass, then maneuvered alongside. Marines and members of Grupo Beta, a special unit of the immigration police created to protect migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, occupied her fore- and afterdecks. Marines presenting automatics lined both the pier and the decks of the patrullero, which loomed like a series of catwalks above the bridge of the battered trawler. They docked this way, flooded with light. Federal and municipal police boarded and arrested the crew. When they were clear, the passengers disembarked. They were led into one of the chambers of the warehouse and given brief medical exams — vital signs, blood pressure. They were divided and combined into new groups. Those who would make the first flight submitted to plastic handcuffs and were distributed onto buses. When enough were through, the Long Sen was called in and the process repeated.

At daybreak, which soaked through the fog evenly and all at once, Medina Viedas emerged to tell what he had seen. He kept repeating the phrase “a very military operation,” you’d have thought, obsessively and spoke of the youth and evident poverty of many of the passengers. I was stuck on the outside of the circle of reporters. Some hyped-up cholos from Huntington Beach called me over to their car, wanting to know what was happening. I told them these were the Chinese boat people, and they were being returned to China. The driver, delighted, told me they already owned enough of LA.

A nurse, whose misfortune it was to have parked outside the port, found herself cornered and answering questions, bravely, in English. As she was describing the passengers’ shocked and terribly sad faces, they flashed before us; a line of buses rounded the corner of the warehouse and, gathering speed behind a line of highway patrol cars, barreled through the gate and out onto the toll highway, where a pair of helicopters dropped in over them.

“While they were still on the boats,” she continued when the noise allowed, “they marked their heads with the line of ochre spray paint.”

In 1882, Congress banned Chinese laborers from entering the y U.S. Because a treaty then in effect with China guaranteed its citizens living in the U.S. the freedom to come and go at will, extending to them “all the rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions which are accorded to the citizens and subjects of the most favored nation,” Congress had to allow those already in the U.S. to travel abroad, but they would need a special certificate that proved they’d been living here to be let back in.

A laborer named Chew Heong had left the U.S. to work in Hawaii the year before the law passed. When Heong tried to reenter in 1884, naturally without a certificate, he was detained on a ship in San Francisco and not allowed to land. He appealed to the Supreme Court and won his case. But the dissenting opinion of Justice Stephen Field hints that the court’s decision was at odds with the general mood of the country. He quotes from a congressional report calling for still tighter restrictions on Chinese immigrants, citing (and providing the emphasis) “the manifold evasions...together with the notorious capabilities of the lower classes of Chinese for perjury. ” Prophesying that “all the bitterness which has heretofore existed on the Pacific Coast on the subject of immigration of Chinese laborers will he renewed and intensified, and our courts there will be crowded with applicants to land,” Field ended his opinion by expressing his hope that Congress would address the subject of Chinese laborers “in terms which will admit no doubt as to their meaning.”

Congress obliged. The 1888 Scott Act denied entry to all Chinese laborers, even those with certificates. About 20,000 laborers were traveling abroad at the time; 600 of them, already en route, were forbidden to land. Again, a passenger challenged the ban to the Supreme Court. But in what’s known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, Chae Chanping lost his appeal and was ordered deported* (The $100,000 in legal bills he incurred during this losing effort were covered by the Six Companies, an association of Chinatown business and social service societies that from time to time during its 100-year history would weather accusations that it was importing contract laborers and prostitutes and extorting money from Chinese immigrants.) Under the Scott Act, all arriving Chinese were detained on San Francisco’s Angel Island until they could prove they were professionals and not laborers. A minister who visited the island witnessed that “merchants, laborers are all alike penned up, like a flock of sheep, in a wharf shed, for many days, and often weeks, and are denied all communication with their own people while the investigation of their cases moves its slow length along.”

Jan Ting, Temple University I.aw School professor, is outspoken about what he calls the United States’ “uniquely cruel and discriminatory response” to Chinese immigration. In a Washington Post op-ed article, he points out that the Chinese Exclusion Case established the principle that Congress is entitled to exclude from the United States basically whomever it chooses — a precedent most recently invoked in the Supreme ( xiurt, successfully, to defend the at-sea interdiction of Haitian boat people. It is, he says, “no exaggeration to say that U.S. immigration law was created for, and is still based upon, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants.

“Tiger Camp," Professor Ting picks up the phone, on vacation in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. He is relaxed and open, confident in his conclusions. He is also no sworn enemy of the INS. Ting served as assistant commissioner of the agency from 1990 until this year and maintains that the agency’s troubles stem largely from underfunding and oppressive policies imposed from above. The Post op-ed grew out of a speech he delivered at the INS last year, a speech he says was well received. “Many people came up to me and thanked me and said they hadn’t known about this history.” But Asian-Americans know it. African-American employees are currently challenging INS hiring and promotions policies, so I ask Ting about the role of Asian-Americans within the agency. “There aren’t a lot of Asian-Americans in the INS at all,” Ting says. “They’ve made some advances — not long ago a situation came up that required a wide variety of Asian translators, and for the first time, instead of hiring translators, we were able to find them almost exclusively within our own ranks. But it’s slow. I do think having more Asian-Americans would improve sensitivity to Asians within the INS.”

I ask him about the law and the Chinese boat people, laughing that “lawyers are great at legal distinctions,” he is nevertheless careful to separate the boat people into two groups, those intercepted at sea and those who have made it into the U.S. He allows that a sovereign power has the right keep boatloads of illegal immigrants from landing but worries about those who have made it into the U.S. and who are therefore entitled to greater legal protection. “Since 1963 immigration law as it is written is non-discriminatory," he explains. “The problems since then have been with selective enforcement.

That’s the question I have here. Is the law being selectively enforced against them? If it is, I would object to that.”

Ting is especially concerned about a policy of keeping the boats' passengers in detention facilities throughout the exclusion and asylum appeals process. “The INS, at Clinton’s behest, draws the distinction that the Chinese immigration has a smuggling element. But two things bother me about that. First, I’m not sure that’s even a rational basis for drawing a distinction. Sure, the smugglers themselves should be punished, but should the immigrants also be punished for the smugglers’ acts? Should they Ik treated any more harshly than the 50 or so people a day caught entering JFK airport without documents?

“And even if it is a rational basis,” he continues, “there’s still selective application, since the INS isn’t singling out all those who are being smuggled in through airports and over the southern border. The total number of Chinese boat people over a two-year period is less than the number of people who come over the U.S.-Mexican border in one night, but no effort is being made to deal with land immigration — or with the large undocumented Irish immigration to Boston each year, where tens of thousands are apparently able to come and go through Boston Logan [Airport] undeterred. Nobody’s raising a concern about that. On the contrary, many arc asking how we can help these people get documents.” So what’s behind this exceptional treatment? “The Clinton administration is bowing to media pressure on this one. Everybody has seen pictures of the boats, of the Golden Venture. I’ve had people come right out and say to me, ‘We have to single out the Chinese, because there’s a billion more where they came from.’ ”

An exclusion hearing is a pretty insular thing. The respondent technically isn’t even in the U.S. yet, and the tension between that abstraction and the very real fact of his or her presence in the room gives the proceedings an odd, dislocated feeling, as though they were happening on an ice floe. Sessions are closed to the public, which only adds to the feeling. When I rush in, the two attorneys, a translator, the judge, and the alien at first look uncomprehending and then like they’re amazed to have been discovered.

This morning I learned some of the Chinese detainees’ cases were being heard, so I ran down here to the L.A. Federal Building, found the bulletin board with the dockets for Immigration Courts A through D flying four columns of computer paper filled with Chinese names, and went for the longest list. Courtroom B. Judge Nathan W. Gordon now lays out for me the difference between exclusion and deportation proceedings, which the public may see, and wants to know why I’m there. He tells me that I’ll need the consent of all parties to stay. The INS attorney, the young Chinese respondent, and his attorney all agree, a little fatalistically, it seems to me.

Richard Rogen is questioning his client, whose green detention uniform might be mistaken for a surgeon’s scrubs if it weren’t for the “Kern County" stenciled across his back. Ling Huang (not his real name; I changed the names of both respondents at their request, although one of these names has appeared in the daily press) is 27 and married. After his first child was born in 1992, family planning officials requested that his wife be sterilized; when she refused, they told him he would be; when he refused they levied a heavy fine. When he refused to pay, he was fired from his job as an electrician. His father, who worked for the same company, was pressured to persuade Huang’s wife to undergo the sterilization. Huang “escaped” — that is, left the PRC illegally. Rogen asks what he thinks will happen if he returns to the PRC. “First, because I violated the family planning policy, I will have to pay the fine. Second, because I left the country illegally. I'll be put in prison.”

Rogen presents a State Department letter that suggests that leaving China without permission is considered treasonous. He also reads from a report on the fate of a group of boat people who have already been “forcibly repatriated” to the PRC]. Despite assurances given by the PRC that no member of the group would be prosecuted, the South China Post reported that 112 were taken into custody immediately and released only after paying a fine. The newspaper quotes a senior U.S. State Department official in Hong Kong as saying that “unless the PRC government comes up with a satisfactory explanation, the U.S. government will no longer repatriate boat people." The article apparently refers to the first group of passengers Mexico returned in May.

Cross-examining, the INS’s attorney notes that Huang married below the legal age of 26 for males (it's 24 for females) and asks why he didn’t wait until he could marry legally. “Because we had been in a love affair a long time, and I wanted to get married.” She asks what he earned as an electrician. “A little more than 200 yuan (around $36) a month." She then focuses on inconsistencies between his original statements to INS officers, his asylum application, and his testimony. When he was arrested on a boat that landed near Half Moon Bay on June 2, he told the arresting agent that he had come to the U.S. to seek work because he couldn’t support his family. He says he didn’t dare say that he had violated the family planning policy.

“When you left China, did you intend to apply for political asylum in the U.S.?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“And you knew such relief was available in the U.S.?” “Yes.”

“Then why were you afraid to ask for it?”

“At that time I was afraid of being arrested, and I thought I would apply later.”

“But you were already under arrest.”

“Yes, but I was afraid I’d be sent back to the PRC.”

She closes her questions by reading a previous court decision declaring that although punitive fines may cause economic hardship to applicants, they don’t prove fear of persecution under the established asylum grounds.

With Huang now silent and hunched close to the court translator, the hearing becomes a legal debate over whether he qualifies for the “enhanced consideration” Reagan and Bush devised for those fearing coerced sterilizations. The debate centers around a July decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals in a case called In the mutter of Chang, where the Board ruled that boat people are not entitled to the enhanced consideration since: (a) the Bush order applies only to Chinese nationals who entered the U.S. before January 24,1990; and (b) the Attorney General memos had been in-service instructions to INS asylum officers, which didn’t extend to immigration Judges, who work not for the INS but for the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Whether asylum policy as a whole should be amended to include family planning policy, the board held, is a matter for Congress to decide. Until it does, judges considering asylum applications from boat people must follow the conventional five-point refugee definition.

It is 11:30, and Judge Gordon announces he will review all the submitted documents and have a decision at one o’clock. An INS guard handcuffs Huang to another of Rogen’s clients, who has been waiting for his hearing, and leads them out of the courtroom. In the hall, I ask the INS attorney if she’s handling a lot of these cases. “I’ve done others from other boats, but this is the first from this boat.” She seems downcast and says she can’t tell me how those earlier cases went, except that some were denied and some were granted. But Rogen is excited. “This is the first time I’ve seen where the judge actually leaves the bench to review something."

Back early from lunch (today’s special in the Federal Building cafeteria: Chinese stir fry, including fortune cookie, $4.25), I have a chance to talk with Rogen and his interpreter. Richard Rogen is in his mid-40s, graying, straight regulation in blue pinstripes. He strikes me as shy, unusually so for an attorney, and his whole outlook seems tinged with the fatalism I detected in the courtroom earlier. When I asked whether he minds if I print his name, he sighed, “No, go ahead. They’ll hate me for this, but what can you do?” “Who will hate you?” His gesture is unaimed and inclusive. “Haven’t you noticed the anti-immigrant mood out there? All of our country’s problems are being blamed on these poor people.” Even when he’s upbeat, as he is now when he mentions again that Gordon’s leaving the bench is a good sign, he has a tendency to trail off an look pained near the end of a statement, as if he can already see it coming back to haunt him.

Rogen has been in court since 9:00, calendaring some of the other 40 or so Chinese boat peoples’ cases he and his partner are handling. When asked how they got involved in this, he mutters something about his secretary volunteering him for some pro bono work, but that happened after Huang and some of his more than 300 shipmates being held in Bakersfield came across an ad for Kaplan, Klein & Rogen in a Chinese-language newspaper a Taiwanese long-termer had passed along to them.

They called from detention and spoke with one of Rogen’s legal assistants and translators. After interviewing several of the boat’s passengers and rejecting any cases they felt were without merit, the firm still had more than 40 clients.

Rogen worries about his ability to prepare 40 winning cases. “Judges are under orders to put cases involving boat people on a fast track. They’ve been told to clear their calendars and hear them all in the next two weeks.

These cases really come down to issues of credibility, and with the way they’re scheduling things, there isn’t enough time to get the documents and evidence to support the application and prove credibility.” He repeats a complaint he made in court for the record. “The detention center where my clients are being held is 120 miles away. I’m only able to meet with my clients one, maybe two times before their hearings.”

This fast-tracking means that some of the boat people go unrepresented. “I can understand the suspicions of some attorneys that a concerted effort is being made to deny access to counsel in order to get these people out of here as an example to others,” Professor Ting says. In Philadelphia, he’s seen where changes of venue and the resulting added travel time have created problems for attorneys who would represent boat people. “Some judges are sympathetic and willing to reschedule; others say. Tough. We’ll go without attorneys.’ I’ve heard a rumor from some attorneys that judges are under flat orders to deny asylum in these cases”; Ting doesn’t buy that but agrees that “clearly the political message is to get these people out of here. They don’t want the 70 percent approval rate that PRC applicants were previously getting. Deadlines have the effect of removing all discretion from the judges, so the fact that judges are operating under a deadline raises serious questions about what kind of justice Chinese boat people are getting.”

Risking Rogen’s mood, I ask what'll it happen to Huang if he loses. “There’s an appeals process,” Rogen answered. “ These - things drag on for years, and all that time he’ll be kept at government expense, since they’re not letting anyone out of detention.” Before Judge Gordon can deliver his decision, he has to deal with a stunned Filipino woman who has dutifully reported for her deportation hearing originally scheduled for this time. He and the woman’s attorney produce personal calendars, hunting for a date when they arc both available. “You know, I wouldn’t really mind if it was never," the attorney quips. They settle for November.

“Mr. Rogen, you’re giving me gray hairs,” the judge begins. “What I want to do and what I can do are two different things.” He stops and looks to the INS attorney. “Has anybody been sent back?” “No comment.”

Judge Gordon grows testy. “Why don’t you just admit it and get it over with?”

He dictates his oral decision. He summarizes the facts, then, as he begins to deliver his decision, Rogen’s shoulders slump. “The court is regrettably guided by the finding in Chang, that China’s one-couple, one-child policy is not on its face persecutive extends to involuntary sterilization as well. The respondent must establish the policy’s application to him is persecutive or he has fear it will be. As to the issue of credibility, I think the respondent has answered honestly; however, he has not established a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Since In the Matter of Chang's still the law, the respondent must show clear probability he’ll be persecuted when he returns and identify who wants to persecute him.

“I reluctantly must find that I am restricted by Chang. I reluctantly do this, hut I must do this. I rule that the asylum appeal he denied and the respondent be immediately deported.” He informs Rogen he has ten days in which to file an appeal.

Rogen, who has gone from defeat to indignation, wants to keep arguing. Gordon lifts his hands. “I’m hound by the hoard’s decision. It’s not what I personally want to do, it’s what I’m bound to do. I’m hound by this crazy decision. You did a yeoman’s job, a good job. Your argument is a good one. I’m in a straightjacket here.”

A few minutes into the ensuing frank and off-the-record exchange, Huang seems to realize that though it’s his case they’re discussing, it no longer has anything to do with him, so he stops straining to listen. As the debate swirls, utterly unacknowledged, a second INS guard enters, cuffs him, and steers him toward the door.

As soon as Rogen’s other client is seated and sworn in, the young man slouches forward, bows his head, and starts rubbing his left thumb compulsively along the edge of the table, a nervous mannerism he will continue without a pause through the entire hearing. Judge Gordon reviews his file and looks up, startled. “He has four children!”

Hon Zhu and his wife were married in 1985, when he was still five years under the legal age. A year later they had a daughter and two years after that another daughter — a permitted exception to the one-child policy. Then in 1990, his wife became pregnant again, this time with twins. When this pregnancy was discovered, a government official visited their house and instructed his wife to report the following day for an abortion. She was, by that time, into her ninth month.

Zhu and his wife and daughters fled to stay with relatives in a remote village. The next day their house was trashed, and Zhu’s father was questioned. For $500 the father bribed his way out of the three-day deadline he was given to deliver his son and daughter-in-law.

Rogen resubmits many of the same documents he presented in the earlier hearing and adds two more newspaper clippings. One is a 1987 Washington Post article on infanticide in the People’s Republic of China; it quotes a surgeon who says he is under orders

not to allow a second live birth and describes killing infants on delivery by crushing their skulls with the forceps or injecting them with formaldehyde. The second is from USA Today, July 27, 1993, reporting that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution recommending that China not be allowed to host the Olympics in 2000 because of continuing human rights abuses.

When in her closing statement the INS attorney points out that Zhu also told the arresting agent he had come here for work, Judge Gordon shoots back, “The fact he came here to work doesn’t mean he won’t be persecuted when he returns. One has nothing to do with the other." When he delivers his oral decision, this time her head drops forward into her hands.

“As for questions of credibility, it appears he admitted to having four children from the beginning, and no doubt if there’s a one-couple, one-child policy, anyone who had four children would be in fear. I am faced with the doctrine whether this alien will be harmed when he returns to China.” He concludes, “Carefully examining the documents and his testimony, using Chang, taking into account that he has four children, that he left China, married before the age allowed, and was ordered to undergo sterilization, it would appear to me that this would place him in a position of harm if he returns to China. I will grant him that relief.”

The guard, reattaching Zhu’s handcuffs, is the only one smiling. He says to me, “You’re seeing some good ones today,” lays a hand on Rogen’s shoulder, and tells him, with feeling, “You’ve impressed me today,” then starts Huang toward the door. I must look shocked, because the INS attorney hurries to explain that an immigration judge’s ruling isn’t considered a final decision; Zhu stays in detention while the government debates an appeal. While we’re talking, Rogen has to call the guard back so he can congratulate his client.

It is sentencing day for the two officers in the federal Rodney King beating case, an emblem of the hard work justice can require, and broadcast vans have devoured every legal foot of curb space near Temple and Los Angeles. I’m meeting Rogen’s partner, Alan Klein, and Josephine Pan, one of their legal assistants. We follow Klein around the side of the Federal Building, down a driveway that dives underneath the building, ducking finally into an unsigned cinder block corridor that leads to the temporary detention cells of the INS. In the reception area, four long rows of black chairs stare into a glassed-in reception desk and two divided glass visiting rooms. In one, a Filipino is talking through the small porthole to a desolate young woman in yellow facility clothing. I landwritten signs announce “No more than one visit per day" and “Personal property will be accepted on departure date only” and, on an inner door, presumably directed to guards, “No guns." On her lap, Josephine Pan holds a bag with a new knit shirt and a pair of her husband’s pants.

The young woman’s attorney, a silvery aristocrat, overhears our conversation. “Congratulations," he calls over to Klein. “Good work!"

“One for two, anyway. If this were baseball, I’d retire.” “Hey, one for ten of these. I’d still be saying good work." Nobody down here seems to know where Zhu is. Klein calls his office, which calls the Bakersfield detention center; they an tell us he’s upstairs on the seventh floor. Up there, we move from room to room on the heels of two blond models having visa problems. Finally, in yet another room with a glass reception booth and absurdly small waiting area, we find Zhu, sitting alone behind a room divider in the middle of some stalled renovations.

He's wearing a thin leather jacket hut no shirt, shriveled jeans, and sneakers. He’s elated now; walking out with us he seems to Ik giving each step just a little too much energy. I le stops us in the hall and represents his entire family in thanking Mr. Klein, et al., then asks after his belongings, the small bundle of clothes he had on the boat, which hasn't kept up with his movement through detention centers. The news stings for a second, but he accepts Pan’s clothes and admits he is hungry. The bus leaves the Bakersfield facility for the L.A. courts at 5:30 a.m., and it’s not a breakfast flight.

We drink coffee while he works on a plate of stir fry and rice at a Chinese fast food across the street; he ducks to his plate between answers. He’s flying out tonight to live with relatives in a bedroom community about an hour outside a major Eastern city, and Klein and Pan are explaining what he needs to do to secure his work permit. They give him several documents — the prize a four-by-six-inch white card stamped in red “Asylum Approval Granted.”

With Pan’s help, I ask about his two and a half months of detention. “In the beginning it was hard. I didn’t like the food, and there wasn’t enough rice compared to China.” He stops, searching for some positives. “There were English classes, some sports.”

What about being arrested? “That was a shock, a big shock. I'd never been handcuffed before. I never did anything wrong. I graduated from high school.”

And what about the others from your boat still being held at Bakersfield? Have they heard the outcome of your case? What was their reaction?

“Of course, everybody heard. They were very happy and proud. Everybody in my room — there were 32 in each room — they all gave me their food when they heard.”

Kapian, Klein & Rogen, a Law Corporation, has its offices on Wilshire Boulevard near Koreatown in LA., a lone, practically two-dimensional strip of high-rises so out of place among the mixed-up and horizontal immigrant neighborhoods it looks like the city must have collapsed around them. “Sidney Kaplan was the first lawyer to practice immigration law in L.A., I think,” Josephine Pan told me. He’s retired, but Rogen and Klein appear to be holding down the fort just fine. (Needless to say, they’ll receive some phone calls from the Bakersfield detention center in the next few days.) In the downstairs lobby, a flower-and-mylar-balloon arrangement floats ahead of me into the elevator, a surprise that cost someone more than Zhu made in two months as an electrician in the People’s Republic.

Zhu rises from a couch in the office reception room. He’s taller than I am, with a runner’s build. His hair, cropped across the forehead, has started over his ears, and his eyes are quick to question. With neither of the translators available, we sit, pointing stupidly to pictures in Sports Illustrated. The language barrier leaves a silence so oceanic and awkward I can already see how quickly it could twist into us not liking each other. No cognates, no individual words that have percolated through into English, no way even to attach sound to the writing. How did we ever become so separate? There’s nothing at all on my side. But he’s already managed to pick up a few phrases, and we discover when we start elaborating drawings of stick figures on boats, numbers are universal — 320, he writes: the total passengers on the big boat, what Klein calls the mother ship.

Since I already know most of the story, we’re able to put together some sensible cartoon panels. On April 21, these 320 pushed off from the PRC in fishing boats, meeting the big boat somewhere in the China Sea. The crossing took 42 days. The passengers received two meals a day of white rice. Some had to pay the smugglers for water.

Three smaller boats sailed out from their normal berths around the bay area and met them outside the Golden Gate. Some kind of radio or walkie-talkie failure kept them circling for nearly three days, and two of the three boats caught the attention of the Coast Guard, which later told the court they kept the boats under informal surveillance. Whether or not this was the case became an important legal issue. The passengers of the one boat the Coast Guard admitted had managed to dock undetected (who were rounded up on side streets minutes later) were, found in a preliminary hearing to have made it into the United States and, having done so, were subject to deportation, not exclusion hearings.

The Coast Guard said it hadn’t exactly known that the other two were alien-smuggling vessels and so hadn’t notified the INS but nevertheless had found their wanderings suspicious enough to keep an eye on them. That was enough for the judge to rule that those passengers were caught in the act of entering illegally, which meant exclusion, which meant detention.

Coast Guard surveillance or not, more of those passengers should have made it into the U.S. The captain of the second boat compromised their chances by panicking and trying to dock in a small harbor at the harbormaster’s slip, which the boat rammed and shattered. Huang and Zhu were on the third boat. Through Josephine Pan, who has returned from interviewing a client, Zhu remembers, “I was awake, just waiting. It was dawn, only beginning to get light. As soon as we got to shore, the women and the snakemaster’s relatives and friends got off. There were cars for them, and they got away. The rest of us stayed on board the boat, then a group of people came and arrested us.”

This improbable passivity nearly persuaded the judge to rule in a preliminary hearing that Zhu and his shipmates had also entered the U.S. There had been plenty of time for them to flee. But during the three days on the landing boat, the passengers had received no food and no water. When they reached land, they were too weak to do anything but sit and wait for the transportation the smugglers had promised would come.

I want to know how he’d ended up on a boat at all. He describes how his family had been hiding out in a mountain village where few people knew him and family planning enforcement was less diligent. Two years ago, he says, “I overheard somebody talking on the street about how to come to the U.S., and I got involved in some conversations. I never met the snakemaster, only the workers. Before we got on the boat, we gave the workers our identity cards and $1000 each. We signed contracts with them. I have to pay off $25,(XX). If I can’t. I’ll have to work for them. And if I don’t, they have my ID card and can find my family in China, and they have the phone number of my relatives here. We had to put that on the application.”

He relates this so matter-of-factly I have to be sure I understand him. He’s not frightened of the smugglers? He laughs at the question, “Of course I’m afraid of them.” But he still went into this, staring straight at them?

“Well, before I got on the big boat, I wasn’t sure exactly how much I’d have to pay. And also some people told me then that if you can’t pay the debt clear, they send you somewhere else to work it off. Before I’d been told it would only take three years to work it off, so we were willing.”

If he’d known ahead of time it would take, say, ten years to work off the debt, and had also known what he faced on the trip and in detention, would he have been willing? He doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, absolutely yes.” He seems worried, though, when I ask him how he feels about the prospect — indentured or not — of working long hours for little money in unskilled work. “I was hoping to study some and learn English so I can get something better,” he says, searching me for clues about what I might be seeing in his future. Then he recovers and adds, “but if that’s the way life will be, then I’ll have to suffer.”

Finally, I want to know what he leaves behind in China. “We lived a very routine daily life. I went to work, came home from work, nothing very exciting. We lived next door to my parents in a two-story house, one room on each level, about like this,” he says, indicating the 10-foot-by- 10-foot reception area. “My parents work the land. Growing up, I was hoping I could go to college. Some of my cousins have, but I couldn’t get in.”

Having relatives who attended college is rare for rural Chinese residents, and the conversation kept returning to education. “It’s what I dream for my kids, that they get a good education.” When I asked him what his best memory will be of China, he stumbled again; here was an aspect of exile he hadn’t imagined. Then, brightening, he answers definitely, “School. I loved being in school.” “And the worst?” “The worst?” he double checks the question with Fan, lets out a bitter laugh, and seems to consider the question answered with that. For me, though, he adds, “When they came for my wife. If they’d gotten to her, I wouldn’t have a son.”

The Sing Li was finally pacified late Saturday, July 17. Sometime after midnight, the Coast Guard handed her over to the Mexican navy, who towed her into Ensenada and at 7:30 Sunday morning delivered her to the dock like an unconscious swimmer. Nineteen of the crew and passengers arrived in restraints, the apparent “resolution” Medina Viedas had mentioned to “violent disputes among the passengers."

By noon, all but 77 of the Sing Li's 215 male and 20 female passengers were sitting alongside the holdovers from the two earlier boats on a charter departing Tijuana, ultimately, for the PRC. The rest were gone by Monday evening. Ensenada was left with the three boats, now nameless, moored in plain view in the harbor yet out of reach of the press. One civilian was allowed to board the vessels: an unnerved local exterminator.

A single passenger remained in Ensenada after the mass deportations. One of the men I’d glimpsed in the cages Saturday morning suffered an appendicitis attack hours later; he had to undergo surgery at the Ensenada Naval Hospital. His general weakness and borderline malnutrition complicated the appendectomy, prolonging his convalescence to 10 days, throughout which he was kept isolated and constantly guarded. As soon as I learned he had been left behind, I contacted Medina Viedas’s office in Mexico City to request an interview. Daily negotiations with his staff seemed headed toward an agreement, and at last the request was granted — the day after he had been transferred to a Tijuana jail to await deportation. I proposed meeting him there instead. This time when the answer came he was at the Mexico City airport, where within minutes he would he escorted aboard a commercial flight to China.

News of what he and the other 677 undocumented Chinese immigrants faced when they returned has begun to percolate through the Chinese-language press in the U.S. Before the barquechinos were brought into Ensenada, we were told that, as part of the trilateral discussions that led to their repatriation, Beijing had offered assurances that the passengers would not be punished. By Monday, when the last planeload left Tijuana and the first reached China’s Fujian Province, the phrasings grew more ambiguous.

The Foreign Ministry declared the PRC would “handle these illegal emigrants upon their repatriation according to law, and if they are really being deceived by smugglers then they will not be put into prison.” A Fujian Province official told a Hong Kong newspaper that the miscreants “would be lectured but would not receive any sort of punishment,” adding paternistically, “after their suffering this time, they are not going to emigrate illegally again.”

Early in August, Jenny Chen, a Chinese Daily News reporter whom I had met in Ensenada, told me her paper’s sources inside the PRC were reporting that the “lectures” some passengers received amounted to reeducation sessions in detention camps. On August 25, the newspaper ran an article quoting a Chinese government official who said that returning passengers had been fined 20,000 yuan — a staggering $3000. To make such a payment, expected on the spot, the boat people would have had to borrow from a wide network of relatives and friends, draining any remaining resources they might draw on to finance another attempt. But neither their bitter experience aboard the barquechinos nor the exorbitant fines seem to have been sufficient deterrents. The returned boat people the reporter located declared they are more determined than ever to reach the United States and plan another attempt at the first opportunity.

Their two compatriots who were allowed to pursue asylum claims in the U.S. remain in the purgatorial nowhere of INS detention. The Coast Guard may have airlifted them in, but they still entered the U.S. without documents, so they’ve been ruled in exclusion and must remain in custody pending the final resolution of their asylum claims. Since recovering from surgery to end her problem pregnancy, the young woman has been held at the San Pedro facility, where, the INS states flatly, “She is not available to be interviewed.” The lone survivor of the shipboard asylum application process, the 22-year-old Christian who says he suffered religious persecution, walked off a helicopter in San Diego and immediately boarded a bus for El Centro. His asylum hearing was originally scheduled for April 1994, but his attorney — a last-minute volunteer drummed up by human-rights advocates — managed to change venue to Los Angeles, so his case may be heard sooner.

When L.A. Times and Chinese Daily News reporters interviewed Liu Jiang in El Centro in mid-August, the young man gave what stands as the only first-hand account of the crossing of and their two-week detention at sea off Baja California. He described nauseating, cramped quarters in the hold of the Long Sen, a boat that in its past life had carried fish; chronic food shortages; and crew members who beat passengers accused of breaking rules. Between bursts of gratitude to God and the United States for his deliverance, he sketched a few vivid scenes from the at-sea occupation: passengers dressing to greet the Coast Guard, American sailors coming aboard carrying shotguns, searching the vessel, and taking up positions on deck. For days nothing happened. The sailors said they were awaiting orders. Hope faded to restlessness, then to fear and near-chaos. He praised his jailers; the Americans, he said, were very nice and had tried to maintain calm and prevent riots.

Two months after the voyages of the barquechinos ended, all information about what transpired while they were in the hands of the U.S. is still carefully managed. Inquiries get routed back and forth between agencies, effectively killing questions raised by journalists working under deadlines. The Coast Guard was initially under orders to refer all questions to the State Department, which sought to broker all information, citing delicate diplomatic considerations — although the policy that led to the detention of the boats off Baja and what happened during those two weeks are purely U.S. matters. The Coast Guard has since been given permission to release some of that information, but “it’s still a case where everyone wants to look at everyone else’s press releases,” as Public Affairs Officer Lt. Dan Mincher puts it. Lieutenant Mincher was able to confirm that the Coast Guard had at times resorted to force but said there were no injuries, and a review has concluded that all incidents had fallen well within the military’s use-of-force guidelines. Those guidelines allow escalating levels of force, beginning with oral warnings and culminating in deadly force. Aboard the boats, the level of force never progressed beyond physical restraint, he told me at first; in a subsequent conversation he said he had learned that pepper gas had also been used to subdue passengers. “When the passengers began to understand they weren’t coming to the U.S., they were very unhappy,” he explained. “Some decided to start fighting among themselves. Some decided to refuse to eat.” Release of a complete after-action review, now in its third draft, is still pending.

At the end of August, Klein and Rogen were 6 for 20 in winning asylum for passengers of the boat that reached the U.S. on June 2. Their success, roughly equal to the overall approval rate for all U.S. asylum applications, challenges statements Vice President Gore made as the U.S. was pressuring Mexico to process the passengers, that “the vast majority” of Chinese boat people who had landed in the U.S. and asked for asylum did not have legitimate requests. By contrast, just one out of 184 of the barquechinos’ passengers made it past the one-shot shipboard asylum review. Another nearly 500 passengers refused to participate in that process. To refugee workers, it seems like more than a remote possibility that among these were some who truly feared persecution but who were inhibited by the presence of other passengers or the threat of immediate repatriation if their claims failed.

Liu Jiang attributes his shipmates’ reluctance to seek asylum to the fact that life in the PRC had conditioned them to distrust uniforms and questions and to their utter exhaustion. “Psychologically, they just wanted to land on solid land,” he explained, “because they had been cooped up for three months.” He reported that some of his shipmates even destroyed the asylum questionnaires. I have heard elsewhere that passengers on at least one of the boats dumped their applications overboard. Absurd and self-defeating as the gesture seems, it’s possible that through this act of political nihilism, this blanket rejection of governments and smugglers and documents and laws, a few may have found what even Liu Jiang has yet to achieve: a moment of absolute freedom.

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