WASHINGTON (AP) _ A stubborn Ovidiu Colea believed his dream of coming to America was only delayed when he felt the cold metal of a guard's gun on his head.

Colea was caught in the summer of 1958 while waiting for nightfall in a corn field by the Danube River. Colea _ now president of the successful Colbar Art Inc. in New York City _ had planned to swim across the river to escape communist rule in Romania.

Testifying before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday, Colea said he spent the next five years in a prison labor camp, enduring beatings, putting in long hours of backbreaking work and scratching the ground for roots and seeds to eat.

But he never doubted that he would someday reach America, Colea told the Senate Judiciary Committee's panel on immigration.

``When I came to America, it was the best day in my life. When I came I was penniless, but this country gave me great hope and opportunity,'' he said.

Colea and two other immigrant entrepreneurs, Kingston Technology President John Tu and Adrian Gaspar, founder of the accounting firm Adrian A. Gaspar & Co., held an audience spellbound as they told of their successes and failures after they decided to come to the United States.

The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., called the hearing to spotlight contributions immigrants have made. Those contributions were overshadowed by last year's bitter and partisan debate over legislation that revamped the nation's immigration laws.

``It's my point of view that in addition to talking about the problems surrounding immigration, we need to have a balanced approach and at the same time ... talk about the positive aspects of immigration _ the means by which immigration and immigrants have contributed to America, to America's greatness,'' Abraham said.

Abraham has been praised by immigration advocates because he helped derail a Republican measure last year that would have cut the numbers of immigrants allowed into the country.

This year he is opposing Democratic efforts to reverse provisions of the new welfare law that leave most legal immigrants ineligible for food stamps, Medicaid and cash payments from the Supplemental Security Income program.

``He doesn't think we should open up the welfare law. He thinks Congress should wait to see if the law works,'' Abraham spokesman Joseph McMonigle said. ``In those cases where there are egregious hardships, he thinks we should address the needs of that narrow class of people who may be affected adversely.''

Near the start of Tuesday's hearing, Colea presented Abraham with a gleaming 31-inch marble Statue of Liberty. Colbar Art, the company he founded in 1982, manufactures replicas of the Statue of Liberty and other art work.

Tu, who was born in China, said he got his first U.S. job shortly before his 1970 graduation from a German college while vacationing at his sister's Boston home. The sister drove him to a Howard Johnson's restaurant and sent him in alone to ask for a job.

``The manager said, `All my friends from China know how to cook. Can you cook?'' Tu said. ``I started the next day as a short-order cook and worked there for my entire vacation making hamburgers and a pretty good clam chowder.''

Tu and a partner netted $1 million each from the sale of a computer hardware company they started, but they lost all of it when the stock market crashed in October 1987. Tu now heads an international computer business in Fountain Valley, Calif., that posts $1 billion in sales a year.

``I would never have had the opportunity to become so successful had I not come to America,'' Tu said.