Sixteen years ago, a rusty freighter ran aground off the shore of Queens, N.Y., and so began American saga of the Golden Venture and her 300 passengers from China's Fujian province.

About two dozen passengers reunited Sunday at the York County Heritage Trust, where author Patrick Radden Keefe read from his new book, "The Snakehead."

Keefe tells of how the Golden Venture came rest 100 yards off the Rockaway Peninsula and of the Chinese-American woman known to most as Sister Ping, the human smuggler (or "snakehead") who helped finance the journey.

Part of Keefe's tale takes readers to York County, where the government held many Golden Venture passengers in the county jail -- some for more than three and a half years.

During that time, a group of local attorneys and advocates took up the refugees' cause. That day came in 1997 when the last 39 detainees walked out of York County Prison.

Despite Keefe's 414-page tale, the story isn't over, he told those gathered Sunday. Many of the passengers still in the U.S. are not on the path to citizenship.

"They live in a nebulous legal state, basically at the whim of the government," he said.

Many settled down, established businesses, had children. Yet they live in fear of deportation, several said.

A few won asylum, but judges refused to reopen most of the cases, said Beverly Church, a paralegal and advocate for the refugees.

Church, who moved from York to Port St. Lucie, Fla.


, five years ago, is still trying to help the men become legal residents.

At her urging, U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, R-York County, introduces a bill in Congress each term seeking permanent legal status for 31 of the men.

"As long as they're under congressional consideration, they won't be deported," Church said. "It's a safety net -- for now."

The bill's chances are slim, requiring unanimous approval from the U.S. House, she said.

One hope is President Barack Obama, who could affect the immigrants' legal status, Keefe said.

"I think the Obama administration should make an exception," Keefe said.

"If the book could reveal the extent of the sacrifice that these guys made to be here and move people to realize that these guys have paid their dues, I'd be overjoyed."

Sean Chen, 34, a former detainee, drove in Sunday from Levittown, Bucks County, where he tends bar at a pub and lives with his wife and 1-year-old son. Other former detainees traveled from Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Connecticut and New Jersey.

They spoke Sunday with attorneys and advocates who spent years fighting for them. They bought copies of the book and filled blank pages at the front with one another's signatures.

Chen, a central figure in the book, said he's unsure it will make any difference in his life or in U.S. policy.

"Honestly, I don't know," he said. "I just hope this will send people the message of the way things truly are. People don't understand we're here for the American dream."; 771-2024

The author

Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed more than 300 people and traveled to Canada, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Fujian province in China while researching his book "The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream."

Keefe also traveled twice to York -- once in 2005 and again last summer. He contacted many of the Golden Venture passengers through the York-based advocates who keep in touch with them, he said.

"I would not have been able to write the book if it had not been for that continued network," he said Sunday.

Keefe often writes about international security, immigration, espionage and the globalization of crime. He is a fellow at the think tank Century Foundation and lives in Washington, D.C.


"The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream," is available at and at Patrick Radden Keefe,

On the blog
- This Golden Venture survivor's family escaped venom of Snakeheads. Read more at York Town Square.