Monday, August 3, 2009

Back to York: A New Call for Action

About two dozen Golden Venture passengers returned to York yesterday, making their presence quietly known at a book event hosted by the York Historical Society. Michael Chen, long the chief spokesman for the passengers, made an emotional plea for support in the former-detainees' quest for permanent legal residence. He was followed at the podium by Lin Man Ying, the detainee who narrowly avoided deportation in 2004.

It's been more than 16 years since the Golden Venture ran aground and 12 years since the final group of detainees (about 50 men) was released from jail on "parole." Advocate Beverly Church has found a way to protect the detainees from deportation -- a "private bill" that has been pending in Congress for years.

The political wheel in Washington has finally turned. The Democrats are now back in power -- just as they were when the ship ran aground in June, 1993. And it is now incumbent on the new Democratic administration to make up for the mistakes made in the early Clinton era. It can be done quietly, with little political downside, but it is the administration's moral duty to grant permanent legal residence to the detainees.

The book event was designed to promote the publication of Patrick Keefe's "The Snakehead" -- Keefe spoke passionately on the Golden Venture issue and read from his excellent book, which generated brisk sales after the event as buyers -- including many of the Golden Venture passengers -- signed up for autographed copies. Byron Borger, host of the event and owner of a York book store, manned the cash register.

Keefe had pointed out during the presentation that even William Slattery, the beefy, gung ho, xenophobic INS official who proudly claimed that he was the moving force behind the detention of the immgirants has come out on the record in favor of getting the Golden Venture passengers their green cards.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Patrick Keefe's "The Snakehead"

Reading Patrick Keefe's superb Sister Ping book, "The Snakehead," reminded me of how artful prose can tell a story with a descriptive depth and level of complexity that a mere film can never acheive.

It was a once in a lifetime experience to read a book that recounted a story that I thought I already knew everything about. After all, I spent 10 years making "Golden Venture," a documentary on much the same subject. Turns out there was a lot I didn't know that amazed me, and much of what I already knew, in the retelling, took on new power.

"The Snakehead" chronicles the rise and demise of Sister Ping, the Susan Boyle of international crime. Cheng Chui Ping appeared to be a frumpy grandma behind the counter of a discount store on E. Broadway, but was in fact the Godmother of Chinatown, the mastermind of a multi, multi million dollar business that profited from the transport of undocumented immigrants from China's Fujian Province.

Ping was actually a side player in the story of the Golden Venture, the freighter that ran aground off New York City in 1993 with 285 undocumented Chinese immigrants aboard. Only two of her clients were on the boat. Ping did, however, provide a loan to Ah Kay, the Fuk Ching gang leader who ran a profitable co-venture with Ping involving the off shore pick up off immigrants for delivery on shore. This loan was used to buy a decrepit tramp steamer in Singapore, the ship the eventually was renamed Golden Venture.

But for the New York media in particular, Sister Ping was the Dragon Lady behind the Golden Venture disaster. The Hong Kong police finally apprehended her in 2000, she was extradited to the US and put on trial in a NY federal court five years later, and sent to federal prison for 35 years. The great irony of the New York media muck fest during the Sister Ping trial is that the community she was accused of exploiting -- the new wave of Fujianese immigrants in Chinatown -- largely viewed her as a folk hero.

"The Snakehead" intertwines the tale of the Golden Venture with the story Sister Ping. The Golden Venture strand begins with the night of the grounding, then drops back to where it began, in Fujian Province and the immigrants who paid $35,000 each for passage to America. Sister Ping's story begins as news of the grounding reaches Ping, and then backtracks to the Sister Ping's early career and advances through Golden Venture and into the criminal investigation that led to her arrest.

Keefe's previous book, "Chatter," penetrated the world of electronic intelligence gathering, and Patrick writes particularly well when his characters are INS agents, cops and figures in the Asian underworld. The pulp in the book -- and I mean that as a compliment -- maintains high entertainment value, providing enough chuckles to make for a straight-through good read.

I first met Patrick when I was at the end of making "Golden Venture" and he was at the beginning of researching the New Yorker article that turned into the book. It was quite thrilling to encounter another human being who showed an interest in a topic I'd lived with for so long. I remember when he came to my old office on W. 72nd St. I felt like an obsessed stamp collector, who had spent years steaming envelopes with stamps from Andorra, suddenly given an opportunity to share my philatelic minutiae with another interested party.

"Golden Venture" the documentary told only the most abbreviated version of the Snakeheads behind the voyage. Sister Ping's trial and conviction took place just as we were completing post production. Tim Robbins, who was kind enough to do our narration, came into the studio for a few minutes to record the Sister Ping voice over we needed before we could lock picture.

I had always been ambivalent about the criminal aspect of the Golden Venture story. Beverly Church -- Golden Venture advocate and dear friend -- was always protective of her "Golden Venture boys" and was highly defensive about any media types who wanted to come in, interview Golden Venture passengers, and then focus on Snakeheads torturing immigrants with hot forks.

I agreed with Bev. What's more, most of the stories about teenage gangsters extorting monthly payments from immigrants working as indentured laborers in Chinatown sweat shops distorted the true nature of Fujianese immigration. In reality, Fujianese raise the money to pay the Snakeheads (the cost of passage more recently has been reported at about $70,000) by taking loans from extended family members. Most slip into America, find jobs in Chinese restaurants, work tirelessly for four or five years to pay off their loans, and then go into business for themselves.

But it's pretty hard to resist a story that has figures in it with names like "The Fat Man" and narrative strands like the Goldfish Case, which involved heroin stuffed into the bellies of dead ornamental goldfish

More on Keefe's terrific book in next week's "Open Border Central!"

Monday, April 6, 2009

Golden Venture's Legacy: The Pro Bono Net

Jim Luce blogs on Huffington about Pro Bono Net, a national network of lawyers working on pro bono cases that was a direct outgrowth of the Golden Venture. Luce reports:

With great foresight into emerging technologies, thought leader Mark O'Brien and co-founder Michael Hertz, who met while working on Golden Venture asylum cases at their law firms, saw a way ten years ago to prepare for this moment in time. Recognizing the potential for technology to transform access to justice, just as platforms such as,, or even TurboTax were transforming other business processes, they launched Pro Bono Net.

With even more insight, the Soros (Open Society Institute) Foundation funded it. Today Pro Bono Net's reach extends into states covering a staggering 70% of the U.S. poverty population and their websites have a membership of over 51,000 lawyers.

Pro Bono Net is at the forefront of emerging technologies, and plans to stay on top. Public libraries are already gateways for the Internet-less to their platforms, and cell phones may be next.

The programs of Pro Bono Net are as diverse as its clients: in addition to its main platform, which exists for the legal community, it has where those in need can find referrals to local legal aid and pro bono programs, information about their rights and tools for self help.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The crash and reverse migration

Seeing an article in the Houston Chronicle about undocumented Mexican immigrants returning home as US jobs have faded gets me to thinking -- as I have done often recently -- about the implications of the economic crisis for immigration. The NY Times also recently looked at this issue, as part of their excellent series about immigrants in America, focusing on Mexican immigrants struggling to hang on in a small Tennessee town.

It's a tough issue to come to terms with. It's tempting to point to the return of immigrants when the economy goes down as an example of how foreign workers benefit the economy. They come here when their labor is needed, and go home when it's not. This is the model of the "guest worker," better known in some European countries than it is here -- although there are examples of officially regulated US guest worker programs for immigrant farm workers. It would seem that even a vehement anti-immigration advocate could see the benefit of this supply-meets-demand phenomenon.

In the hot days of the immigration debates before the economic meltdown, those of us at Open Border Central were not arguing in favor of immigrants as guest workers. The guest worker concept entered the debate as Congress was seeking compromise legislation -- the temporary worker provision seemed like a callous, gutless political concept. But that was before sub-prime.

In those days before it became so popular to condemn capitalism and trample on the sacred memory of Milton Friedman, we Open Border bloggers would in fact have totally disparaged the guest worker notion. Let these people seeking economic freedom come here and work and join the fabric of our society. The cost of providing public service (education, health care, infrastructure) would be small compared to the increase in economic activity stimulated by hard working, low wage immigrants. And that is still true.

So let's be consistent. Let's not say: "see, they go back when there's a depression" as a new twist on our pro-immigrant position. Let's not be happy that immigrants are going home, saving money for hard pressed state budgets. Let's be consister, and say, it's a shame they're going home. If there were to stay, the recovery will come all the sooner, and will be all the more vigious and long-lived.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Marking an Anniversary

Last night I enjoyed screening "Golden Venture" for a group of high school-age kids at CityKids in Tribeca. The group is actually studying the politics of food -- an interesting, focused topic! And of course, "Golden Venture" is all about food. An epic political story, filled with suffering, stoicism and bravery, all centered around a group of 256 people who traveled across the world to make, sell or deliver food.

I've been busy working on my new film, a documentary about domestic violence, and haven't had a chance to update this blog recently. Watching sections of the movie again and talking with the students reminded me that we recently passed the 12th anniversary of the release of Golden Venture detainees from the York, PA County Jail and some other immigrant detention facilities around the country.

The York Daily Record carried an excellent piece about it, including a number of transcribed audio reminiscences from some of the York residents who were involved in helping and advocating for the Golden Venture detainees. .

Monday, February 9, 2009

Thavi Up for An Oscar

Thavisouk Phrasavath, who labored for many months on "Golden Venture," now stands on the verge of fame and glory with his Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Thavi
co-directed, edited, wrote, narrated and stars in "Nerakhoon (Betrayal)," which is one of five films nominated in the category. "Nerakhoon" has been a huge hit critically and on the festival circuit. It's an artistic masterpiece, shot over 25 years. Basically, Thavi's story, the story of his family, and the story of the US relationship with Laos during and after the Vietnam War.

Thavi deserves the Oscar. I've seen most of the other films nominated -- including the two front runnerz, "Man on Wire" and the Herzog South Pole movie. While both of those two films are well done films, they don't compare to "Nerakhoon."

I don't mean to disparage another film maker's work, but I would be appalled if "Man on Wire" were to win. It's a nice film, but ultimately, it's a movie about a narcissistic publicity junkie and his small band of ass kissing sycophants, told with no irony or perspective. As you can see, I'm completely objective!

I'm proud to report that Thavi and I are working together again on a new film, "Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America." We've just launched a new web site:, which features a trailer and some short videos cut by Thavi.