For Chinese Boat Detainees, Confusing Legal Process Grinds On
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) _ Jailed Chinese are fighting deportation in a legal system they fear may not be much fairer than the land they fled, where dissent is stifled and punishment is swift.
Attorneys representing detainees stranded when their cargo ship ran aground off New York City in June say court hearings are proceeding too fast to serve anybody’s purpose but that of the government.
″Are they frightened? I’d say they’re absolutely terrified,″ said Michael Usher, an Allentown lawyer.
Usher has organized a group of colleagues to represent the detainees for free and to help them fight to stay in the country they risked safety and savings to reach.
″At least when they were on the boat, they were on their way to America. Now a lot of them are losing hope,″ Usher said.
Forty-eight Chinese are being held at a minimum-security prison near Allentown. An additional 117 are lodged at York County Prison in south-central Pennsylvania.
They were among 288 Chinese aboard a rusty ship that hit a sandbar off a Queens beach June 5. Ten Chinese died in a race for land that also left five men hospitalized. Three others were never found. The remainder applied for political asylum and were distributed to detention centers in several states.
For detainees in Pennsylvania, deportation hearings began July 26 at federal Immigration and Naturalization Services offices in Philadelphia and are proceeding at a clip of about four a day.
At least six detainees have received deportation orders and been returned to Lehigh County pending appeal, Usher said. No York County cases have been decided.
Advocates say an emphasis on expediency - motivated, they believe, by the Clinton administration’s get-tough policy on illegal immigration - is giving the hearings a deportation-mill flavor.
Edward Poon, an Allentown engineer and a member of the Chinese Christian Church of the Lehigh Valley, said some of the men lived through the most repressive era of Communist China, the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and the 1970s.
″They know how brutal a government can be,″ Poon said. ″The (U.S.) government is trying to clamp down on this activity once and for all at the expense of these people.
″It really stirs me quite a lot. They’re being treated as some kind of statistic,″ he said.
President Clinton last month announced intentions to crack down on illegal immigration, saying the United States would no longer tolerate smuggling.
But the volunteer attorneys say the government’s new, quick-fix resolve now means insufficient time with their clients, little opportunity to prepare their cases and scant information about where and when hearings will be held.
″We’re swamped. The Justice Department wants to move this on almost at any cost,″ said Stephen Converse, a York attorney volunteering his services.
INS officials repeatedly refused to speak with The Associated Press for this story and finally referred queries to the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration. Spokeswoman Ana Cobian said the hearings were being conducted according to policy.
″The procedure is consistent with due process,″ Cobian said.
The Allentown inmates might quibble with that assessment. Their hearings were initially scheduled for Allentown, then moved 50 miles away to Philadelphia. That forced some volunteer attorneys to withdraw their services, leaving several detainees to face hearings with no lawyer. Legal representation is not a right in deportation hearings.
The INS ships in administrative law judges weekly, making consistency impossible, attorneys say.
They say requests for continuances have been denied, and detainees have told their attorneys they fear rubber-stamp decisions similar to their own government’s.
″They’re being railroaded,″ said Ana Mai Wong, a Philadelphia attorney and vice president of the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley.
″I think that the political tone now is to have these people sent back immediately. And I think the INS is starting to feel that pressure,″ Wong said.
U.S. Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa., has been pressuring INS to return the hearings to the Lehigh Valley.
″For these people, the determination that will be made will influence the rest of their lives. It involves fundamental questions of human freedom,″ McHale said.
Usher asserts the government is making it difficult to fulfill his ″moral commitment to help these people.″
″If we had three or four months to prepare for this thing, it would have been a different story,″ he said. ″Now, it’s pretty clear to us that these people really don’t stand much of a chance.″