Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Twenty years ago a ship plowed into a sandbar off Queens, New York, and human cargo spilled out. Nearly 300 men from southeast China started scrambling for shore. The ship was the Golden Venture, and the men had paid smugglers to get them to the U.S. Ten of them died desperately trying to make it to land. The rest were ultimately arrested and detained.
That was arguably the beginning of the U.S. practice of imprisoning illegal immigrants. Patrick Radden Keefe wrote a post in this week's New Yorker about the men aboard the Golden Venture. I asked him to tell me the story of one of the passengers.

Patrick Radden Keefe: There was a guy who's name was Sean Chen, this is what he goes by now, who was a boy really when he left. He was about 18 years old. He had some trouble with the local authorities, he'd attended some democracy protests, and one day he basically, a change of clothes and a backpack, he didn't have any I.D., his family had paid smugglers to get him out of the country. So he went overland, through Burma, to Thailand, and got on one ship. That ship took him as far as Mombasa, Kenya, where it broke down and he was stranded for six months in Kenya waiting for another ship to pick him up.
The other ship that came eventually was the Golden Venture. He was then in the hold of the Golden Venture on this really brutal voyage in which they hit huge storms, there was a near mutiny at one point, they were running out of food, people were sick, and ultimately the ship ran aground in New York. He jumped off, managed to swim to shore, and at that point he felt like I've done it. I came all this way. He'd been gone for over a year at that point, from China, and he thought I've made it to New York. And it was at that point that he was arrested and sent off to immigration detention in York, Pennsylvania, and he spent the better part of the next four years there in prison. He was released eventually in 1997. President Bill Clinton paroled out the remaining Golden Venture passengers who were there, but he didn't get a Green Card. And what's happened since is that he moved to Philadelphia, he works in the restaurant business. He currently works in a Japanese restaurant. He's always had a number of jobs. And it's funny, you know, Sean has become a very American guy. He's about my age, we got to know each other pretty well. He married a woman he met here. They've had two kids here. And, you know, it's funny when his first son was born he told me it took a few days before he even thought to come up with a Chinese name for his son, he so strongly identified with America. And yet, you know, he's not really legally entitled to be here in the long term and he doesn't feel as though there's anything to go back to in China. He has no family there anymore, there's no reason why he would go back. So he's in a kind of limbo.

Werman: Keefe told me some of the men from the Golden Venture are assembling in York, Pennsylvania this weekend where they spent so many years in detention. He doesn't know whether Sean Chen is going this time around.

Keefe: There was a reunion a few years ago actually, and a bunch of people came from all over the country. They, another kind of wonderful aspect of this story is that the population in York actually rallied around these guys in the prison when they realized that these guys had gone to such great lengths to leave China and they were now locked up. A lot of people in York started volunteering and trying to help with their legal cases. And so there's a whole community of people in York, Pennsylvania that really came together, and they've stayed in touch with them. And so it's a, you know, in some ways a profoundly sad story because of the struggles that these guys have gone through and the extent to which they really haven't been able to find legal acceptance in their new home. But in other ways, an encouraging one I think, because of the ways in which it brought people together in this community.

Werman: Just looking back, it's incredible the lengths these people took to get out of China.

Keefe: Yeah, it's pretty astonishing. But interesting enough, you know, I had a conversation with Sean Chen where I was actually saying to him, look at China now. Look how prosperous it is. I had gone back and I had gone to Fujian Province, which is now really booming, and people there told me, oh, I wouldn't leave now. Why would I want to go to the United States and work in a restaurant when I could stay here and open a factory? And I said to him, do you ever regret risking your life and going through just this incredible ordeal in order to come to America, knowing now what you didn't know then? And he says, you know, even knowing what I know now, if you gave me the opportunity again, I would do it all over again.

Werman: Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the book 'The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.'  He's the senior fellow at the Century Foundation.