On Queens’ shores, a lesson on asylum seekers

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Lost in the discussions on whether it is acceptable to lock up children separately or to simply lock up entire families for violating immigration law is the case of the Golden Venture, which landed on Queens shores 25 years ago carrying more than 200 illegal immigrants.

As the proponents of the Abolish ICE movement have asserted in recent weeks, not only is the country’s lead immigration authority a recent creation, but the enforcement of indiscriminate detention and deportation can be traced directly to the Trump administration and its stated policy to be “tough” on the undocumented after ebbing and flowing since the late 1970s. The subsequent crackdown has ensnared many, including lawful asylum seekers, long-term and law-abiding residents and others who have a reasonable belief that their safety would be in danger.

In actuality, at the turn of the century, to immigrate to America, one needed to arrive at a port of entry and pass a medical examination. Workers flowed seasonally across the border with Mexico. There were racist exemptions, mostly against Asian immigrations, but European immigrants, for the most part, enjoyed unrestricted entry to the country. As immigration from Western Europe fell and larger numbers of Jews, Italians and Irish sought out new lives in America, nativist panic led to the creation of quotas and other restrictions that have led to the modern restricted immigration system.

The practice of detaining asylum seekers has links to Queens, where on June 6, 1993, the Golden Venture, a cargo ship originating in China, ran aground on Fort Tilden beach in the Rockaways. Of the 286 on board, 10 drowned or died of hypothermia in the ensuing chaos and the remainder were incarcerated in York, Pa., where eventually some were granted asylum, but others were deported back to China or other countries that would accept them. Despite having a reasonable claim of asylum, having been the victims of human trafficking, some were imprisoned for up to four years. The detention of the Golden Venture victims became a national issue, eventually reaching President Clinton, who authorized the release of the remaining 52 detainees in 1997.

In the story of the Golden Venture, we see many parallels to today. Many of the victims were recruited by criminal gangs with the condition that they would need to work off up to $30,000 in the debt once they arrived in New York. Today, citing human trafficking and MS-13 as key concerns, our immigration system elects to punish those who arrive at the border to claim asylum. As was the case with the asylum seekers of the Golden Venture, who were starved and abused by traffickers, many have made a journey that no one would undertake unless they were truly desperate. At the time, many of the interpreters noted that despite their ordeal, the asylum seekers considered the hardship preferable to the political oppression and impoverishment in their home country.

Yet, with many similar stories of asylum seekers, having crossed oceans and made harrowing journeys to claim their right to petition for asylum, the United States has not progressed beyond the thinking of 25 years ago, in which the impulse was to lock asylum seekers in prison rather than give their petitions fair consideration. The Trump administration has announced plans to increase the number of detention centers, a troubling sign for an agency that already operates with a quota for number of beds that must be filled with detainees.

Those arguing the merits of family or separate detentions miss the lessons that happened on our shores 25 years ago.

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