Twenty years ago this morning, a ship called the Golden Venture ran aground in Queens. Inside its hold—a cramped, hot, windowless space that was about the size of a two-car garage—the vessel carried nearly three hundred undocumented immigrants from China. They came, mostly, from a series of villages in Fujian Province. Some of them might be called refugees, as they were fleeing political or religious persecution, or the occasional horrors of China’s one-child policy. But many, and perhaps most, would more accurately be described as economic migrants; they knew that in America there were dishes that needed washing, food that needed delivering, clothes that needed pressing. In a menial job on the margins of the U.S. economy, they could earn in a year what it might take a decade to make back home, and they were willing to risk their lives to get here.
The voyage was a Conradian nightmare, from Bangkok to Mombasa, Kenya, and then down around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1620, it took the Mayflower sixty days to reach these shores. In 1993, it took the Golden Venture a hundred and twenty.
When the ship plowed into a sandbar several hundred yards offshore, passengers mobbed the deck, then began, one after another, to jump over the side and into the chilly Atlantic. They had been informed by the “snakeheads”—human smugglers—who controlled the ship that if they could set foot on land in the United States before being caught by the authorities they would be permitted to apply for political asylum. Ten of the passengers did not survive the swim to shore. (In 2006, I wrote an article about the Golden Venture for the magazine, and then, later, a book.)
Today, after two decades of galloping economic growth in China, it may seem hard to imagine a time when people were willing to die in an effort to flee the country. But the 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. (When Jimmy Carter admonished Deng Xiaoping in 1979 for not allowing more of his people to emigrate legally, Deng is said to have replied, “Why certainly, President Carter. How many millions would you like?”)