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BOY’S DECISION TO FLEE COMPOUNDS MISERIES

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Had he grown up in America, girls and cars might have dominated the teenage boy's thoughts. But in China's coastal province of Fujian, he had more serious concerns.

Sickened by his government's corruption and frightened that it might turn on him for his developing political views, he decided to flee to America. That meant hooking up with the gangsters who deal in human cargo and spending 11/2 months on a cramped freighter where beatings were commonplace and food and water weren't.Federal agents seized the boy and his fellow passengers when they were almost upon the California coast. He was jailed for four months and has spent the past two years in a Seattle-area foster home, waiting for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to decide his fate.

He was one of almost 260 Chinese juveniles from Fujian who have tried to enter the United States illegally only to be taken into custody and put in foster homes since late 1993. Close to 100 came to foster homes in the Seattle area.

They were a small and virtually unknown immigrant population until earlier this month when three of the teens were kidnapped, assaulted and held for ransom. The federal investigation into the crime has exposed ties to similar, violent crimes in New York City. It also has shed light on a federal program that has failed - half of the juveniles nationally and 72 locally have run away before their immigration cases were settled.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has promised a nationwide investigation into the foster program.

The teenager in the local foster home agreed to an interview to put a human face on the stories of he and other Chinese youths. But he agreed to talk only if he, his foster home's location and the details of his immigration case were not identified.

He said he has ample reason to worry. He fears that he, too, could be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Then there is the federal government. An immigration judge rejected his request for political asylum. He has appealed to Washington, D.C., but still stands in danger of being deported.

Back home in China, the "snake-heads" who agreed to smuggle him for the United States still are out the $28,000 he promised to pay them. The Chinese government, the teen said through an interpreter, is as likely as the snakeheads to exact revenge.

"First they would beat me, then throw me in jail, maybe forever," he said.

"Now I just live day to day. Maybe tomorrow the American government says, `Send him back,' " the teen said in the living room of his foster home. "I'm afraid of the American government, and I'm afraid of the Chinese government."

The teen had no great illusions about the United States when he decided to come here. He did not expect a golden shore would await him.

But he couldn't stand his government's oppression of political protest or its corruption.

"The government is so bad. Everything is money. Money talks. You give them money, then they do something," he said.

The decision to immigrate wasn't unusual. It is a way of life in Fujian. The teen knew plenty of relatives and neighbors from his home city that had left.

He also knew where to turn. The snakeheads were just another group of merchants.

"They stay in the hotels just like the businessmen do," the teen said.

If you know a snakehead, he might give you a break on the standard fare, the teen said. He agreed to $28,000, which he would pay off once he got to America and found a job.

Government officials keep one eye open and one eye closed, he said, allowing the snakeheads to do their business.

He waited two or three months. Then a boat arrived from Taiwan.

"You don't have a choice once you get on the boat. You can't get off," he said.

The teen was not even 16.

Some 320 Chinese immigrants jammed in the stink and suffocation below decks. "We were crowded in like sardines. There was nothing to drink, nothing to eat," he said.

Food was a small bowl of rice a day. Some passengers grew so thirsty that they drank sea water.

Stronger passengers preyed on the weaker, beating them for their food. "They say, `I'm so hungry. I beat you up for your food,' " he said.

Guards would also beat up passengers for eating too much.

"Every day someone hits somebody. The guy in charge, if he didn't like you, he hit you."

The boat's captain had a rifle with which he would threaten and beat passengers. "You couldn't scream. You couldn't yell. He would shoot you," the teen said.

There was nothing the frightened boy could do but try to survive. "Who was going to help me? I thought if I died, I die," he said.

"I thought this is the way my life is going to end."

After 45 days, he and other passengers got on smaller boats to take them to California. Food and water were in even shorter supply for the three days he spent on the smaller boat. Conditions were even more cramped than on the larger boat.

"You can't move at all," he said.

Federal agents surrounded the boat and took the passengers into custody in the spring of 1993. The INS reported two major seizures of vessels carrying smuggled Chinese immigrants in late May and early June of 1993 in Northern California: a freighter that made a midnight landing in San Francisco Bay and two fishing boats that landed south of San Francisco.

The teen was taken into custody. He understood little that was occurring, except that he and his fellow passengers were going to jail.

He was locked up in San Francisco for a couple of days, then sent with other juveniles to a facility in Los Angeles. In all, he said, he was locked up for 145 days.

The flood of immigrants from Fujian was continuing. Shortly after the teen was taken into custody, the Golden Venture with almost 300 smuggled Chinese immigrants aboard ran aground off New York City.

The INS has a policy to not to lock up juveniles. So it devised a program to spread the Chinese juveniles out in foster homes sponsored by Lutheran and Catholic charities. They were to remain there until their immigration cases were settled.

The foster homes became a limbo for the juveniles. They have little status in the United States - no I.D. or Social Security card, no legal hope of getting a job.

All they can do is wait.