The fears about Sunday’s migrant ship disaster in the Mediterranean are proving true. With the estimated death toll now at 850, the tragedy has attained superlative status in the recent history of fatal attempts by desperate migrants to reach Europe by sea. And the horrific descriptions of what happened on the ship—of hundreds of people trapped below deck as the vessel went down—are fueling a debate about Europe’s immigration policy.
For New Yorkers who were old enough to watch the news in 1993, the scenes of desperation in the Med might stir memories of the city’s own, most infamous episode of seaborne immigration: the grounding of the tramp steamer Golden Venture off Breezy Point in Queens in the wee hours of June 6, 1993. Those memories raise the question of whether American immigration policy has evolved since that episode.
It was hard not to be affected by the scale and contour of the Golden Venture tragedy, summed up beautifully by Robert McFadden’s superb lede in the next day’s New York Times: “A tramp steamer smuggling hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants into New York ran aground in moonlit darkness and a pounding surf off the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens early yesterday, ending a 17,000-mile odyssey from the Far East in a nightmare of panic, chaos, death and capture within sight of the golden door.”
Some 300 Chinese migrants were on board. Ten drowned or died of hypothermia when they leapt overboard in a bid to make it to land. According to a Coast Guard history, six vanished and “the rest were rescued by the Coast Guard and local agencies.” Federal law enforcement focused its attention on Cheng Chui Ping, one of the smugglers involved in financing the journey. Dubbed “Sister Ping” and “the Snakehead Queen,” Ping was finally convicted in 2006 and sentenced to prison, where she died last year.
But the focus on the dastardly Sister Ping was a handy distraction from what happened to her clients. Contrary to standing U.S. Policy, which was to release asylum seekers while their case was pending, the Clinton administration threw most of the Golden Venture’s passengers into the York County Jail. As Mike Argento wrote in 2013 in the York Daily Record:
The legal battles went on for years. Some of them—35 by one count—were granted asylum. A few received artist’s visas, a result of the intricate artwork many of the detainees made in prison from scraps of paper. A dozen accepted an offer from several South American countries to relocate there. Ninety-nine gave up and opted to be deported back to China, unable to tolerate incarceration. The rest remained. And fought. … [O]n Feb. 27, 1997, the remaining 55 detainees in the York County Prison were paroled.
But their experience would set a precedent that would affect hundreds of thousands of migrants captured in the years that followed. As the New Yorker‘s Patrick Radden Keefe wrote on the 20th anniversary of the disaster:
[T]he Golden Venture arrived in New York on the crest of a great wave of illegal migration from China to the United States. In 1995, the C.I.A. estimated that a hundred thousand people were being smuggled here from China every year.
For the Clinton Administration, this posed an acute dilemma. When the Golden Venture arrived, it was quickly swarmed by TV news helicopters, which broadcast stark images of the malnourished passengers as they huddled in blankets on the beach. Until then, if you arrived in the United States without the proper documentation, but requested asylum when you got here, you were generally given a court date, then released. But many new arrivals failed to show up for these hearings, opting, instead, to try their luck as undocumented migrants. In the hours after the Golden Venture arrived, as the White House and immigration authorities tried to determine what to do with the passengers from the ship, it was decided that this catch-and-release asylum policy had become a “magnet” for illegal migration. The sheer magnitude of China’s population was enough to fluster even the most ardent of refugee advocates. …
So a decision was made: rather than release the Golden Venture passengers while their asylum claims were processed, the authorities would throw them into immigration detention.
The United States has always suffered from a certain bipolarity when it comes to immigration policy, vacillating between a desire to embrace the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” described in the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and an approach that is more nativist—and punitive. In 1993, immigration detention was not a widespread phenomenon, but after the decision to confine the Golden Venture passengers, the practice took root. Today, the United States imprisons some four hundred and thirty thousand people each year on immigration grounds—including several hundred who are kept, inexplicably, in solitary confinement. It is a brutal, extraordinarily unforgiving system, which now costs taxpayers two billion dollars a year.
The parallels between Golden Venture and the ship that went down thousands of miles away on Sunday, are not perfect, but they are clear, says Peter Cohn, the director of a well-regarded documentary about the 1993 event and its legacy: “At the root of it are human beings who are desperate to leave, willing to endure misery and face death in order to make a new life. On the other side [are] governments and nations facing economic stress and a surge of anti-immigrant political sentiment.”
You can—and should—see Cohn’s movie here. The numbers are different, the ethnicities and destinations have changed, but 22 years later people are still getting on dangerous boats in hopes of reaching a better life. And people already living that better life still can’t figure out how to respond humanely.